Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the rest of the Bruins were hockey royalty in the early 70s.
In the early 70s, the Boston Bruins were the kings of New England and the toasts of the hockey world. Bobby Orr and The Animals. The Big, Bad Bruins.
They won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and again in 1972, and reached the finals in 1974 before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers. In all, they played in five Stanley Cup finals between 1970 and 1978.
The Bruins are back in the finals again this year, and if they go on to beat the Vancouver Canucks, they will hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 years.
Back in the early 70s, the Bruins held their pre-season training camp in Fitchburg, a former paper, tool works and clothing milltown on the banks of the Nashua River, about an hour or so outside of Boston in Central Massachusetts.
Those were the days. Here are four tales of the Fitchburg Bruins from Septembers in the 70s.
1974: A Cherry on Top
As the leaves began to turn in September of 1974, a young cub sportswriter arrived on the scene with the Fitchburg Sentinel. It was his first real newspaper job, and one of his first assignments was to cover the Boston Bruins training camp.
That year, the Boston Bruins were a force to be reckoned with, picked by many experts to win the Cup as they began training camp for the upcoming 1974-75 NHL season. The nucleus of their Stanley Cup championship squads — featuring all-time defenseman Bobby Orr, scoring machine Phil Esposito and captain Johnny Bucyk — was still intact.
Don Cherry, often called Grapes, was the Bruins new head coach, taking over for Bep Gudolin. Cherry always has an agenda, which carried through in his colorful interview sessions. He was bursting with notable quotables as he talked about his talented Bruins, the Fitchburg night life, and Blue, his bull terrier.
Known for flamboyant dress and staunch Canadian patriotism, Cherry guided the Bruins for five seasons, and took them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1977 and 1978, where they twice lost to the Montreal Canadiens. Cherry was fired after a too-many-men-on-the ice penalty late in the game enabled Montreal to tie the score and eventually knock out Boston in the seventh game of the 1979 semifinals.
Cherry, coached the Colorado Rockies in 1979-80, then went on to a highly successful career as a hockey commentator with CBC Television. He was recently voted as the seventh greatest Canadian on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s television special, The Greatest Canadian.
In goal for the Bruins that camp was young Gilles Gilbert, coming off an outstanding year in his first full season that carried all the way through the playoffs. Gilbert was valiant in defeat when the Bruins lost the sixth and deciding game to the Flyers, 1-0, in the 1974 Stanley Cup finals.
Gilles was fun to speak with, but it was difficult to understand his French Canadian accent, even for a guy who took French in high school.
And forward Terry O’Reilly was on the fast track to success with the 1974-75 Bruins. When the Sentinel reporter interviewed O’Reilly, he mentioned that his father was a milkman. Sounded familiar to the reporter, who drove a milk truck before working for the newspaper.
1975: Patty Hearst, Espo and Orr
On September 18, 1975, publishing heiress turned urban guerilla Patty Hearst, victim of a bizarre kidnap by the Symbionese Liberation Party, was found by federal US agents following one of the most extensive manhunts in history.
That same afternoon, a columnist from the Fitchburg Sentinel & Leominster Enterprise parked his car in a field on the New England farm of noted philanthropist George R. Wallace, Jr. Phil Esposito, all-star center of the Boston Bruins, pulled up next in a Mercedes.
Both were heading for a clambake at the Wallace farm, an event to fete the Bruins, who trained at the George R. Wallace Civic Center.
As they walked up to the barn to join Bruins players, coaches and local politicians and luminaries from Fitchburg, Esposito turned to the reporter and said, “Did you hear? They found Patty Hearst.”
Moments later another Bruins player, all-star defenseman Bobby Orr, emerged from an apple orchard on Wallace’s farm. Orr was limping noticeably. Espo, concerned about this teammate, asked him if he was all right. Orr smiled, but admitted the knee was bothering him.
Little did Orr — or Espo, the reporter and the clambakers — suspect it at the time, but Orr’s his brilliant career was just about over at age 27. A few days later, Orr was sidelined and had knee surgery.
He would play just 10 games for the Bruins in 1975. Orr would never skate for the Bruins again, playing 26 games for the Chicago Black Hawks between 1976-77 and 1978-79 before retiring, his brilliant career over at age 30.
Orr played a full 80 games during his final season in 1974-75, scoring a career-high 46 goals, and won his second Art Ross scoring trophy as he led the NHL in both assists with 89 and points with 135. He was never the same player after 1975, when he won a record eighth straight Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
During his Koufaxian-like career which began with a Calder Trophy as an 18-year-old NHL Rookie of the Year in 1966-67, the Parry Sound, Ontario, native was the best hockey player ever. Orr redefined the position of defenseman and led the Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.
In 1970 he became the only player ever to sweep the league’s top awards — Norris, Ross, Hart Memorial as regular season MVP and Conn Smythe as playoff MP — and scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime, flying through the air to complete a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues.
The following year Orr recorded a plus/minus of 124, best in NHL history and quite likely the most unbreakable record in hockey. Only one other player, Larry Robinson of Montreal, ever had a plus/minus over 100 in a season.
Orr broke the mold of the defensive-minded defenseman, winning two scoring titles and leading the NHL in assists on five separate occasions. He won three consecutive MVPs (1970-71-72) and was also the playoff MVP in 1972, when the Bruins defeated the New York Rangers in six games to win their last Stanley Cup.
And the columnist still swears that although Wayne Gretzky may have been The Great One, Bobby Orr was The Greatest
1977: George Plimpton in Goal
Two years later, in September of 1977, change was in the air in Fitchburg. The sportswriter had a daughter now. Orr was gone, finishing out his career with the Chicago Blackhawks. And Espo had been traded to the Rangers exactly 50 days after Patty Hearst was captured. In the blockbuster trade, Espo and Carol Vadnais were sent to new York for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Joe Zanussi.
Gerry Cheevers, the goalie hero the last two Bruins Stanley Cup championships was back. Cheevers would lead the Bruins back to the finals in both 1977 and 1978, where they would twice fall to the Montreal Canadiens.
Training camp had a different twist this year. A tall, gangly fellow arrived in camp to play goaltender. George Plimpton was his name, and he was going to mind the nets for the Bruins in an exhibition game.
Plimpton was a participatory journalist, best known for Paper Lion, a book about this attempts to quarterback the Detroit Lions in a pre-season game. He was preparing to write Open Net, a professional amateur in the world of big-time hockey.
During the first day at camp, Plimpton went through the ritual of putting on the goalie gear. He described the leg pads as each weighing “about the same as an Underwood typewriter.”
Don Cherry gave Plimpton some strange reassurance. “You’ll be OK, I mean you’re going to live. I’ve never seen a goalie get a serious injury — even before the time of the masks.”
In a book of many great lines, one of the best lines in Open Net stemmed from a conversation Plimpton had with Bruins defenseman Rick Smith. Smith told the story of a fan in the old Boston who yelled at referee King Clancy in a foghorn voice, “We got a place here in Massachusetts, Clancy that’s named after you. It’s called Mahblehead.”
Plimpton trained with the Bruins for several weeks, the played reasonably well in a brief stint against the Flyers, even stopping a penalty shot by Reggie Leach.
As if they were intent on proving they were playing this game for real — even an exhibition game in which George Plimpton appeared — the Bruins and Flyers brawled several times and amassed 266 penalty minutes between them. Eighteen players were ejected by referee Wally Harris.
1978: The Turk in the Tank
In the early autumn of 1978, Derek Sanderson was sitting in a dark corner of the Peter Pan bar in Fitchburg. The sportswriter and his buddy could see him. He was dead drunk.
The Turk could barely stand, and between trying to pick up waitresses, pick a fight, and do more shots of tequila, Sanderson was out of it. Earlier that day he had been cut by the Bruins, his once promising hockey career finished.
Sanderson had been an integral part of the Bruins team that won the Cup in 1970 and 1972. One of the most highly regarded penalty killers and face-off men in hockey, he set up Bobby Orr’s overtime goal in 1970 against the St. Louis Blues that gave the Bruins their first championship in 29 years.
After the 1972 season, Sanderson signed a contract with the Philadelphia Blazers of the newly-formed World Hockey Association. His $2.6 million salary surpassed that of Brazilian soccer star, Pelé, making him the highest-paid athlete in the world at the time.
Not even the Turk could live up to that billing, and before the end of the season the Blazers bought out Sanderson’s contract for $1 million.
Sanderson returned to the Bruins, and was later traded to the Rangers. Hobbled by knee injuries and frequent bouts with alcohol and drug abuse, Sanderson finished his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1978.
He tried a comeback with the Bruins that season, flunked out, and wound up drunk in the Peter Pan.
This story has a happy ending. The Turk conquered his demons. and became a popular broadcaster with the Bruins.
Today, Derek Sanderson is involved with a variety of charitable organizations and makes a number of guest appearances at charitable events to help raise awareness of alcohol and drugs.