Final matchup stirs memories for Milbury

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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He’s not behind the bench or in the front office of an NHL organization, having joined the television side of hockey the last few years, but Mike Milbury has his fingerprints on many aspects of this Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Bruins and Canucks.

In 1989-90, Milbury coached the Bruins to the Presidents Trophy and the Cup Final against Edmonton, the last time Boston made it this far.

The Bruins and Oilers went to three overtimes in Game 1 that year before Edmonton’s Petr Klima, who had languished on the bench for much of the game, ended it at 15:13 of the third OT. It was the longest game in Cup Final history.

Current Bruins president Cam Neely and assistant general manager Don Sweeney were on that team. The most telling photograph that ran in the Globe was of Sweeney sitting on the ice with his tongue sticking out, too tired to move.

When asked to take a trip down memory lane, Milbury had some vivid recollections.

“The miss by [Glen] Wesley [on an open net in the first OT] when we were all just about ready to explode with joy,’’ he said, “and then it evaporated. And certainly the Klima goal after we hadn’t seen him in a week and a half.

“I knew we were in trouble. Our bubble might have burst in Game 1 and [goalie Andy] Moog couldn’t bounce back. He was dehydrated and I remember looking up in Game 2 and we were outshooting them, 16-4, and we were down, 3-2. I thought with two days off he’d be fine, but he really wasn’t the same after that.

“The punctuation mark before the series was over was when [Mark] Messier cross-checked [Dave] Poulin while he was on his way down and he blew out his knee. I knew we were in for a pretty mighty struggle at that point.

“We scrambled to a win in Game 3 but let’s face it, as I look back on the teams and the rosters, they had more firepower than we did.

“[Bill] Ranford was Tim Thomas-like at that time, and their fourth line was [Martin] Gelinas, [Adam] Graves, and [Joe] Murphy, which was a pretty damn good fourth line.

“It was a fun run but not good enough. You might remember it fondly and I might remember it fondly, but most people just remember the Oilers winning the Cup.’’

Islanders connection
When Milbury was running the show with the Islanders, he and his staff drafted two of the most important players in the Bruins-Canucks matchup: Zdeno Chara (No. 56 overall in 1996) and Roberto Luongo (No. 4 overall in 1997), as well as Game 1 hero Raffi Torres (No. 5 overall in 2000).

Luongo was dealt after one season on Long Island, and Torres was gone after two years in the organization. Chara lasted four and was part of a blockbuster trade on June 23, 2001, that sent him, Bill Muckalt, and the No. 2 pick in the 2001 draft (Jason Spezza) to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin.

“He was part of a trade that really saved us,’’ said Milbury, whose tenure was fraught with early ownership upheaval but eventually stabilized. “We turned the team around. It was the fourth highest turnaround in league history.

“It wasn’t our first choice on a trade, but [Chara] had Rich Winter, who was one of the most difficult and problematic agents that I ever had to deal with.’’

Milbury said nobody projected Chara to be the player he is today.

“Most of that is a credit to how badly he wanted to get the job done, to be an elite-level player,’’ said Milbury. “Early on, it looked like he was going to be a [No. 4] defenseman but not a potent offensive guy.

“But he’s worked at all facets of the game and he’s one of the great shutdown players in the game. I just think it’s purely from focus and hard work that he’s made it.

“I’m sure he’s had some coaches along the way but there wasn’t much that was going to get in Z’s way. It was a hard and long path to get to where he’s at.

“If you saw him play in the first couple of weeks of training camp, you’d have said, ‘Wow, this is a project,’ and it was a project, but his desire made it easy to work with him.’’

Trading Chara paid dividends for the Islanders.

“One of the reasons we did it, and I’ll never forget it, we were picking second in the draft,’’ said Milbury. “No. 2 was Spezza. He was going to be a version of Yashin in five or six years. People forget how many points Yashin put on the board and how good he was when he wanted to be.

“The price we paid was Chara, whose agent was asking for a bazillion dollars. We saved our jobs for a while. In the long run, was it the best deal we could’ve made? I don’t know. There wasn’t much else out there, but we needed to give the franchise some credibility. That worked.

“Did it get us to a Stanley Cup? Not close. But it gave us a foothold of respectability.’’

Northeastern coach Greg Cronin, a former Islanders assistant, said Chara was fascinating to watch.

“We were playing Florida, and I used to joke around, Zdeno was like the wildebeest out in the Sahara,’’ said Cronin. “The lions would chase him down trying to get his leg or his arm and try to pull him down and fight him because he was so much bigger than everybody else.

“He was just a target on the ice. At the time, I think it was 1999, Paul Laus was one of the toughest fighters in the league and he went after Zdeno by our bench. They were fighting and wrestling around and he was getting in some shots and Zdeno just took him, picked him up, and slammed him onto the ice, with Zdeno falling on top of him.

“I can just remember Laus getting up and he was laughing, like, ‘What just hit me?’ He was laughing at how strong Zdeno was.’’

A special time
With the Final heading into Game 4 tonight, Milbury reflected on the Bruins’ march to this point. The team’s resilience helped it get past the Canadiens, and then came a sweep of the Flyers.

“I thought Philadelphia just rolled over and died,’’ said Milbury. “There was just so little fight in that dog. It had to be disturbing to Philadelphia, and I’m not just talking about the goaltender.

“They looked like a team that was not in synch. Without being able to verify anything, I heard a lot of stories after it was over to indicate that, but it was a much easier series for the Bruins than I thought it would be, and I think it was advantageous that it was.

“It buried a demon and gave them some rest to try to get ready for what I thought was a pretty resilient Tampa team. It looked to me like [Martin] St. Louis wasn’t quite himself in the series and that was maybe the difference.’’

Though it has been a long time since Milbury was behind a bench for the most critical series of the year, you never forget what’s on the line.

“The finals are such a different breed of cat,’’ said Milbury. “The rest of the playoffs are really no barometer of what will happen or how people will react when they get this close.

“The highs and lows are higher than normal and lower than normal. To get back to level is harder than usual. It’s one of the things the Bruins have done well. They’ve bounced back at times this year when people thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re toast.’

“Then they rise from the ashes and flirt with a long great stretch and they can’t sustain that. But that’s the way it goes. It is going to be interesting to see how they react to it.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at

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