Rick Middleton, a nifty defender

Earlier this season, Rick Middleton attained his rightful place among the greats. The Boston Bruins made his no. 16 the 11th number to be retired to the TD Garden rafters. And a quick look at the career numbers are enough to explain that — 448 career goals (402 with the Bruins), 20 or more goals a season 12 out of 14 years — along with his position among the leadership of an era of consistently excellent teams. He’s got a decent case for the Hockey Hall of Fame; his place in the rafters should be without question.

I never really got to see Middleton play at his peak. But even when I was a kid, I was enough of a student to have quickly gotten the picture that he was as smart and professional a skater as anyone. Knowing anything about the Bruins, that had to mean that he had what Jack Edwards often refers to as the 200-foot game. He was a captain and he was nifty and then he retired and Jozef Stumpel took his number.

So the reality that he’d been a one-way player — and one that coach Don Cherry wasn’t too keen on acquiring — was new to me.

“When Harry Sinden told me we had a chance to get Middleton, [he asked] do you want him,” Cherry said at Middleton’s number retirement ceremony, referring to Middleton’s 1976 trade from the New York Rangers to the Bruins for Ken Hodge. “And I said, ‘well I coached against him when he was in Providence,’ eh, and I said, ‘he goes that way, but he doesn’t go this way.’ We had to introduce him to the goalie at the end of the season, I’ll tell you that.” [1]

But in everyone’s version of this story, that changed. Middleton worked that first year and started to round out his game, and by his second season in Boston, he was a new player. He scored 24 goals with 26 assists in his last season in New York, but he did it while carrying a -39 on the ice. By the end of 1978, his production was up a tick — 25 goals, 35 assists — but he’d flipped his game completely and was worth a +41. Just getting to 0 would have been impressive. Where he was -45 in his career in two seasons with the Rangers, he would be +220 over the next twelve in Boston.

”I just realized this is a team,” he told The New York Times in 1983. ”This isn’t just going out and trying to put the puck in the net … I realized this is the real way of playing. It was fun.”

And he did this without becoming a goon. The year his plus/minus jumped to +41, he served only eight minutes in the penalty box. Certainly, he wasn’t going to be the first to drop his gloves and fight it out, not on a team with Terry O’Reilly, John Wensink, Mike Milbury and Stan Jonathan so ready and able to throw down. But the discipline he showed in making that transformation is remarkable. It was so apparent that he won the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play in 1981-82, and finished as a top 20 finalist in voting in nine of his final 10 seasons.

By staying out of the penalty box, he fashioned himself an expert penalty killer. He scored 25 shorthanded goals in his career, with all of them coming from 1978-79 on. Some late-night trolling through hockey clips led to this discovery of a gem against the Minnesota North Stars on Feb. 26, 1981. In a game that set a record with 392 penalty minutes — which were kicked off by a fight seven seconds after the puck dropped — Middleton managed to get onto the score sheet with two shorthanded goals and factored into a third with an assist. [2]

While shaping his game to become one of the defensive stalwarts of his era, his offense never suffered. He had two 100-point campaigns, topped 90 points three more times and averaged about 43 goals a season from 1978-79 to 1984-85. Two of his final three seasons were marred by a concussion that limited him to 49 games in 1985-86 and 59 in his last year, but by then he had the captain’s “C” on his chest, and the prospect who only went one way was setting an example for a group that would meet the Edmonton Oilers twice in the finals to end the decade.

All this brings us to why no. 16 was finally raised to the rafters. Bestowing this honor on his number gives everyone the opportunity to revisit a career that defied every first impression, and offers an example of how special players can change, along with a reminder that it’s just as important to go “this way” with the puck as it is to go “that way.” Maybe it’ll help towards the consideration of other honors for Nifty, too.

1. Cherry continues: “And so what does he do? He goes out the first game and gets a hat trick, and Harry says, ‘well you’re in trouble now.’”

2. A fun tidbit from this game: because of all the penalties, Middleton played most of the night on a line with Jean Ratelle at center and a young Ray Bourque on left wing.

One response to “Rick Middleton, a nifty defender

  1. Pingback: Reliving Nifty’s glory days | Saves and Shutouts, by Nick Tavares

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