In ’72, they lifted Cup and region
Swashbuckling Bruins owned the town when last atop hockey world
They needed no last names, then or now. Who didn’t know Turk and Ace and Cheesie and Chief?
“A guy would be climbing a telephone pole and he’d shout, ‘Hey, Pie, how are you?’ ’’ remembers Johnny McKenzie.
The Bruins owned this town in 1972, when they won their second National Hockey League championship in three years, and now that their Spoked-B successors will be playing Vancouver for Lord Stanley’s mug, McKenzie and his former teammates have become celebrities again.
“Every time you go someplace, it’s just phenomenal,’’ says Ken Hodge. “Granted, we’re seeing a lot more grandmothers than we used to, but people remember.’’
They remember a rambunctious crew of frat brothers who performed with moxie and menace and magic, who filled the old Garden to its 13,909 capacity every night, who revived Boston as a hockey town and inspired the creation of dozens of rinks filled with Pee Wees who dreamed of becoming the next Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito or Gerry Cheevers.
“What was so wonderful about those teams was that they made people around you who knew nothing about hockey, like my mother, into absolutely devoted fans,’’ says Dick Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum at TD Garden. “The Bruins became an extension of your family.’’
There was a blue-collar bonhomie to the players that made their fans consider them neighbors.
“They were approachable,’’ recalls Jerry Lauretano, a Somerville native who runs a hair salon there. “I saw Bobby Orr and Gary Doak at a roast beef place in Nahant. I saw Eddie Westfall at a set of lights at Science Park. I saw Derek Sanderson down at Falmouth Heights.’’
Along with the expectation of excellence, those Bruins established the Lunchpail A.C. ethic that still motivates the current roster (whose coach, Claude Julien, spent summers tarring roofs during his playing days).
Unlike this year’s edition, though, the 1972 Bruins had the stage to themselves at a time when the Red Sox were between pennants, the Celtics between titles, and the Patriots were perennial losers. After years of bumping along the bottom of the league, the club had been reborn in 1967 with the blossoming of Orr, its teenaged messiah, and the arrival of Esposito, Hodge, and Fred Stanfield from Chicago.
Its long-suffering fandom, which had been waiting decades for a whiff of the Cup, welcomed the new arrivals as saviors.
“We were very close with all the players,’’ says Roger Naples, the longtime Gallery Gods leader from Revere who has been a season ticket-holder since 1938, when second-balcony seats went for 40 cents, and who still sees more than half the home games. “There wasn’t one who could do any wrong.’’
Missing a game was unthinkable.
“You’d go out for warm-ups and night after night you’d see the same people in the same seats,’’ recalls Hodge. “They wouldn’t give them up.’’
When the Bruins swept the St. Louis Blues in 1970 to win the championship for the first time since 1941 — the photo of Orr celebrating in mid-air is the most famous in Boston’s sporting history — 140,000 fans jammed the parade route to City Hall Plaza where McKenzie, the team’s beloved angel-faced agitator, doused Mayor Kevin White with a pitcher of beer.
Only a Bruin would dare to pour lager over Hizzoner’s head.
“It was probably like being a St. Louis fan during the Gashouse Gang years,’’ observes Johnson, who says that Orr & Co. were “two parts Agincourt, one part Marx Brothers. You were seeing antics and a certain joyousness, too.’’
Only a Bruin who’d been nabbed for driving under the influence would use his one phone call to order Chinese takeout. Only the Bruins would wheel one of their wounded from the hospital to Orr’s bar for their breakup dinner.
“I got operated on [for a knee injury] and they came and got me,’’ says Esposito. “God, it was fun.’’
All-for-one was the team rule. No Bruin ever drank by himself (there was a two-beer minimum on the road) or fought by himself.
“Everyone was for each other,’’ says Sanderson. “No one was ever in a beef alone.’’
In a tribal town where loyalty to the corner was paramount, that was a defining bond between the Bruins and their followers.
“We could relate to them,’’ says Lauretano. “Stick up for each other. Don’t leave your friend behind when he’s in trouble.’’
What made the players adored in the neighborhoods made them abhorred elsewhere around the league.
“Somebody once told me, ‘You guys are the Oakland Raiders of the NHL,’ ’’ says Esposito.
They were Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins, the bunch that everyone loved to hate.
“We were cocky bastards,’’ McKenzie concedes. “We didn’t care who we played.’’
Even divine intervention was considered a minor obstacle. “Jesus saves but Espo scores on the rebound,’’ proclaimed a ubiquitous bumper sticker. So the loss to the Canadiens in the 1971 quarterfinals came as a shock.
“We messed up,’’ says Cheevers, who shared goaltending duties with Eddie Johnston during the Cup years. “There’s absolutely no question about it. We didn’t go about defending the championship the right way.’’
The 1972 campaign was about redemption. After topping the league during the regular season, the Bruins ripped through the Maple Leafs and Blues en route to a finals date with the archrival Rangers.
“Their fans threw hot coffee on me and burned me in effigy,’’ recalls Sanderson. “One night when we were coming out of the building, a kid jumped out at me and a cop cracked him with a billy club. When I thanked him, he said, ‘Hey, I think you’re an [expletive] too. I’m just doing my job.’ ’’
The Bruins had hoped to reclaim the title on home ice, but let the chance slip away in Game 5. They had heard that the Cup was in the building and that champagne was at the ready and were caught dreaming.
“We were having our holiday before we earned it,’’ McKenzie said then.
Boston had to finish things two nights later on 33rd Street.
“It was kind of bittersweet,’’ says Hodge. “We should have won the Cup at home, but it was sweet to go to New York and beat them in their building.’’
The 2 a.m. welcome-home at Logan was suitably raucous.
“It was insane,’’ says Sanderson, who swapped clothes with a baggage handler to avoid being mobbed. “People parked in the Callahan Tunnel and walked to Terminal A.’’
There was another parade and another dousing at City Hall, but this time it was McKenzie on the receiving end.
It was the last hurrah for a franchise that hasn’t won a Cup since. McKenzie, Cheevers, Sanderson (who soon returned), and Ted Green left for the new World Hockey Association, and Westfall was claimed in the expansion draft. Eventually Esposito was dealt to the Rangers and Orr decamped for Chicago as a free agent.
But nearly four decades later, they still are recognized and saluted on the streets of the city they put on the hockey map, and which this spring has finally returned to center ice.
“People are more aware now that the team is going so well,’’ says McKenzie. “Twice as many people come up and talk to me now. ‘Hey, Pie,’ they’ll say, ‘how are they going to do tonight?’ I always say, ‘They’re going to win.’ ’’
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.