Forty Year Reunion: Bruins Versus Rangers

orr-1972-stanleycupx-large

Before I was an Islanders fan, I was a Rangers fan.

That’s because there were no New York Islanders before 1972.

Rod-Gilbert1My New York Rangers were the team of close but not enough. Between 1971 and 1974, they looked championship ready, but every time someone stopped the Broadway Blueshirts. In 1971 they finally won a playoff series against Toronto, only to lose in seven games to the Chicago Blackhawks. In 1971 they beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens and swept the Blackhawks, only to lose to the Boston Bruins in the finals. In 1973 they beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins, only to lose to Chicago once more. In 1974 they beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens, only to lose to Philadelphia, who then went on to beat the Bruins for the Cup.

In other words, for three straight years the Rangers knocked off the defending champions. In beating out Montreal for the final playoff spot in 1970, they blocked the Canadiens from attempting to win a third straight Cup.

These Rangers were loaded with Hall of Fame talent in Rod Gilbert, Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, and Ed Giacomin. I met Gilbert and Park one summer when I attended their hockey camp, and Gilbert liked the fact that I wore his number seven on my skates. The following year Gilbert and Park joined Team Canada in the Summit Series against the Soviet Union, and I had to make do with folks like Rogie Vachon (Rogie was terrific, and wore white goalie skates that made him look like a small polar bear) and Gilles Villemure (who also rode in harness racing).

Park OrrAlthough one could target the Blackhawks as the greatest obstacle to championship greatness, the Rangers’ biggest rivals were the Boston Bruins, who had a few players that people remember, led by a guy named Bobby Orr, with Phil Esposito, John Bucyk, Ken Hodge, Wayne Cashman, Gerry Cheevers … enough already. For every Walt Tkaczuk, there was a Fred Stanfield; for every Jim Neilson and Rod Seiling, there was a Don Awrey and Dallas Smith. If Gilbert was New York’s playboy, Derek Sanderson (as in Derek Sanderson Jeter) was Beantown’s response. Vic Hadfield could fight and shoot, but so could John McKenzie. And yes, those teams liked to fight.

The Rangers and Bruins met three times in four years. In 1970 the two teams fought through an opening round of six games, with the Bruins prevailing. Game Three that year was a classic donnybrook:

Here’s newly-acquired Ranger Tim Horton joining in the fun:

Park orr 2The following year, a rookie goaltender named Ken Dryden held off the Bruins, but the Rangers fell one game short of making the finals: in 1972, however, after both teams had magnificent regular seasons and dominated the NHL All Star selections, they faced off in the finals, and the Bruins 0516_bruins72_3SA10FJ0Rprevailed once again, causing a first-year student at the Phillips Exeter Academy much heartache as a Rangers fan in Bruins territory. Revenge came in 1973, when the Rangers prevailed in surprisingly easy fashion. Yes, Phil Esposito went down with an injury, but the same fate had befallen Ratelle the previous year, possibly costing him the scoring championship.

During those years, Orr and Park had a rivalry that was akin to Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, although Park fell a little short. Gilbert and Ratelle were finesse and speed, while Esposito and Hodge were brute force and banging home loose pucks.

The two teams simply brought something out in the other. Orr and Park not only defended against each other, but they fought. So did Gilbert and Sanderson in the final game of the series, a game better remembered because of Orr’s performance. At the end of that contest Bruins captain John Bucyk lifted the Stanley Cup … and, realizing he was in New York, hurried off the ice after a short skate.

1972-bruins-rangersIt would never be quite the same after that. Both teams lost players over the next few years to retirement, the rival World Hockey Association, and trades; in November 1975 the teams traded stars, with Esposito and Carol Vadnais coming to New York in exchange for Park, Ratelle, and unknown Joe Zanuzzi. By that time I was an Islanders fan in any case, and during the Isles’ Stanley Cup run they beat the Rangers three times and Boston twice.

Still, those Bruins-Rangers clashes were classic.  It took me a long time to admire Orr, and even longer to give Esposito some respect (I feel the same way about Mark Messier), although Espo’s performance versus the Russians helped a lot. It was not fun when aging Bruins made their way to New York (Hodge and Cashman stand out, along with Sanderson), much as old Edmonton Oilers would suit up as Rangers, but with far better results. Meanwhile, I followed Park and Ratelle with their new team, and in any case the Bruins of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a different bunch.

This year’s series has nothing on what once was.

9 thoughts on “Forty Year Reunion: Bruins Versus Rangers

  1. Al Hintz May 20, 2013 / 5:21 am

    Your post brought back a lot of memories. I started out as a Rangers fan until the Islanders came to LI. I met Gilles Villemure once, not a Madison Square Garden, but Roosevelt Raceway. The days of a misspent youth.

  2. Norm Crosby May 20, 2013 / 7:06 am

    I understand your ambivalence regarding those Bruins teams of the early 1970s. It took me over forty years to forgive Ken Dryden for denying my beloved B’s the Cup in 1971. Like most Bostonians of my generation, those Big Bad Bruins teams will always remain Gods. I wore number 9 not for Ted Williams, but for John Bucyk.

  3. John Foskett May 20, 2013 / 7:38 am

    No Walter Tkaczuk or Vic Hadfield? And it must have been interesting to be “coached” by the answer to the trivia question “Who lost his job to Ken Dryden?”

  4. Paul Marcone May 20, 2013 / 11:50 am

    Wow, this brings back memories. Growing up in Long Island, I started playing and following hockey in 1970 — as a Rangers fan. I remember watching the games on Channel 9 (WOR) with the “Big Whistle” — Bill Chadwick doing the color commentary. Great teams, great memories. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Mark H. May 20, 2013 / 2:12 pm

    Brooks:

    At what point did your allegiance flip from the Rangers to the Isles? What sparked it? And if the Devils had come into the league instead of the Isles in ’72, I assume you would’ve remained a Ranger fan?

    With “July 1863” set for release, can we expect your next book to be called “April 75” following the improbable playoff run of your team?🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 20, 2013 / 9:26 pm

      The erosion in allegiance started in the fall of 1972 and was complete by 1974. It was not easy, because I had actually met Gilbert, Park, Villemure, and several other Rangers. I had chatted with them, I watched other kids (including Nick Fotiu) work with them, and I was vaguely aware of the Mullen brothers, so this was different than fan worship from afar. Gilbert in particular was terrific. But I recall that after 1972 I went to Islanders games, while I have never been back to MSG (I have seen the Rangers on the road). For me the biggest game during the ’72-’73 season was when the Islanders beat Boston in the Garden 9-7. I took far less satisfaction that I thought I would in the Rangers beating the Bruins in 1973; the last time I was passionate at all was in 1974, when I hoped they would beat the Flyers in the semifinals.

      In 1974-75 I completely identified as an Islanders fan. That made the first round best-of-three against the Rangers most memorable. The Rangers soon made it easy when they began trading away people (or releasing them, as in the case of Eddie Giacomin, who was waived). I was quickly a Gilbert fan, period. Meanwhile, although I liked Denis Potvin, it was the play of a rookie center who played the game the way I had played it (at a much higher level) that shut the door completely. Having started out as a right winger (like Gilbert), I had soon switched to center (by 1972), and now here was someone who played the game the way I liked to play it and thought it should be played … Bryan Trottier.

      I think that I would have remained a Rangers fan had there not been the Islanders, but there was something else going on at that time that shaped how I view the business in investing my rooting interests: I pay attention to well-managed teams while I tend to minimize my investment in poorly-managed teams (and the Islanders have been one or the other during much of their history). This first manifested itself when the Yankees traded Bobby Murcer following the 1974 season. It also appeared when the Islanders let go of Trottier and decided to go to war with Pat LaFontaine.

  6. Michael Confoy May 21, 2013 / 5:46 am

    It’s a shame it took the Caps 7 years longer that the Islanders to contend, but that was the price they paid by starting 2 years later when the WHA was going full swing and the available talent pool was much less while the Islanders came into the NHL to keep the WHA out of Nassau County arena. I personally will never forget them defeating the Isles in the first round in 85-86 and the next year losing to the in the Easter Epic game which is the longest game 7 in NHL history and the only game 7 that required 4 overtimes. The Caps had dominated the game outshooting the Islanders 75–52 but Isles goaltending was stout. My girlfriend kept yelling at me to turn the TV off in my loft apartment and come to bed but I watched to the bitter end and paid the price of her fury the next day.

    The Islanders 19 series playoff winning streak remains the longest streak in the history of professional sports (one more than the 1959–67 streak by the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association). Sorry if you already noted this but I have a hard time reading the entire articles on the Isles in many cases as it is too depressing for me.

  7. Buck Buchanan May 24, 2013 / 10:29 am

    Brooks,

    Thanks for this post….I am reliving those years as my beloved Bruins take on the Broadway Blueshirts.

    They gacked up a chance to sweep last night but I think we’ll close it out tomorrow.

    As for how I felt about those Boston teams from back then….well, there is a reason my license plate for 20 years has said YAZ&ORR.

  8. Mike Fitzpatrick May 21, 2014 / 5:45 pm

    Brooks!
    Where did you grow up!!…….I am still a Ranger fan despite living on Long Island during those great Rangers years in the 70’s!!……..btw……when will your Gettysburg book be out!!
    Mike Fitzpatrick

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