In this era of distance and isolation, I’ve probably been on more text threads than I have at any other point in my life.
One of them is, not surprisingly, rather sports centric. And through the many twists and turns that begins as a basketball highlight and mutates into complaining about the Red Sox, poking fun at the NFL and then debating various eras of various contests, the thread turned to educating one friend about Rick Middleton, in which I happily participated.
He was sold right from the get-go of Middleton’s highlight reel, which begins with him chilling on the bench, hair swept back, mustache in full glory, casually sporting a black eye and waiting for his next shift. That video does have a few ridiculous moments packed into just over a minute of footage, but there was obviously more to his game.
I wrote about Middleton when his number went up in the rafters of TD Garden, focusing on his remarkable transformation as a loose-cannon winger with an eye for the net to a tenacious defender who used his acumen on one side of the ice to spin the play around on the opposition. In an era that was as high-scoring as it was bruising, he found a way to play on both sides of the coin, using speed and hockey IQ to steal the puck and create scoring opportunities.
Finding convenient highlight packages are not simple, but all this extra time has offered up the ability to see him play in real time. One example comes from Feb. 24, 1979, in a 4-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks in the Pacific Coliseum. None of his highlights are overly flashy, but he’s in the right place to make the right play at the right time, and he places himself there repeatedly. And in the process, he winds up having a hand in three of the four goals Boston scores.
Here, he plants himself at the crease while Terry O’Reilly, Brad Park and Peter McNab work the puck around looking for an opening. After O’Reilly crashes the net, Middleton is there, unmoved despite a number of bumps and bruises, to swat home the rebound on a backhand.
The next goal is an excellent example of Nifty’s quick touch. Another clearout sees O’Reilly at center feed the puck to the left for McNab, who carries it in and just patiently waits for Middleton, now gliding down towards the net. McNab flicks it right onto Middleton’s stick, and just as quickly it’s behind netminder Gary Bromley.
Later in the same game, he circles back, anticipating the turnover from Vancouver, and is in perfect position for another odd-man rush, again with his linemates McNab and O’Reilly. McNab carries the puck through the center, Middleton picks it up, wheels around the net and fires a darting back-hand pass back into the slot for a streaking O’Reilly for the fourth and deciding goal of the game.
All three goals were examples of a relentless approach to the game. The Bruins were positionally sound and sturdy in this era, but Middleton was the epitome of everything they were trying to be. He was tough without having to rack up fighting majors and penalty minutes, playing with his head on a swivel and seemingly aware of his surroundings at all times.
This is just one of 1,005 regular season games Middleton played in the NHL, along with another 114 in the playoffs, where he would inflict even more damage on his opponents. That combination of skill, toughness and discipline is so rare, then and now. It’s not the easiest stuff to track down, but Nifty’s greatness was preserved, and it’s appreciated in times like this.