Fresh on the job as Bruins coach, Don Cherry at first wasn’t sure what to make of the heated shenanigans that evening at Chicago Stadium. It was only a preseason game, yet there was legendary Boston defenseman Bobby Orr, typically with emotions in control, trading nasty high sticks with Stan Mikita, the Black Hawks’ iconic centerman, four-time NHL scoring leader, and future Hall of Famer.
From his spot behind the bench that autumn night in 1974, Cherry quickly construed that the bad blood traced back a way, as it so often did then in Original Six rivalries. Boston and Chicago began jousting in the 1920s in this professional hate society of stitches, broken bones, and cross-checks. A half-century or so of sweat, blood, and fisticuffs remained the connecting points between the storied franchises, as central to their relationship as skates cut from leather, sticks chipped from Canadian hardwood, and goalie pads stuffed with horsehair.
“There was some bad feeling,’’ Cherry recollected years later in the book, “Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff’’ written with longtime Toronto hockey scribe Al Strachan. “There must have been bad feelings before.’’
Much of the long-simmering animus between the clubs has evaporated now in the days of the 30-team NHL. On Wednesday night, Boston and Chicago will meet in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and it is a very different, far more professional league than the one the two clubs began to shape when they opened for business (Boston in ’24, Chicago ’26) in post-World War I America under the NHL’s shield logo.
Still identified as a brawling, blood-and-guts league in the days of Orr and Mikita, the NHL today of Zdeno Chara and Jonathan Toews is a faster, more skilled, and some would say more physically punishing enterprise. Full-scale brawls have been legislated out of the game, individual fights have become increasingly rare, especially in the postseason.
Instead, when the puck is dropped just after 8 p.m., the emphasis will be on explosive skating, bone-rattling checks, acrobatic goaltending, and frenetic back-and-forth play.
This is the first time two Original Six clubs have clashed in the Cup Final since the Canadiens clinched the title with a 4-1 win over the Rangers on May 21, 1979. The Bruins and Blackhawks, for all their history — including six playoff series (1927 through ’78) — have never battled for the championship.
In the years that have followed that Habs victory in ’79, the NHL has expanded by 50 percent, from 20 teams to 30, and most players have become millionaires (average pay $2 million per season). Mere months after that Habs victory, 18-year-old superstar-to-be Ray Bourque entered the Boston lineup, signing a three-year deal that would pay him a total $300,000 through the spring of ’82. Tyler Seguin, now wrapping up his third NHL season and currently Boston’s third-line right wing, this autumn begins a six-year contract that will bring him $34.5 million.
The night Orr and Mikita clashed, the combined payrolls under the control of Cherry and Chicago coach Billy Reay probably didn’t reach $4 million. In part because of the Bruins’ wild popularity with the phenomenal Orr, the rival World Hockey Association was born in the fall of ’72, which started to escalate pay at warp speed as NHL players bolted for the upstart, free-spending league.
According to Cherry’s book, when Mikita was questioned postgame about the on-ice dust-up with Orr, Mikita blurted to reporters, “Cherry doesn’t run that club, Bobby Orr runs that club.’’
Then along came Joe Giuliotti, beat man for the Boston Herald American, seeking comment from the rookie Boston bench boss. “Political correctness” was a relatively new term in America, and it certainly was yet to penetrate the rinks belonging to the NHL’s 15 American-based teams.
“Stan Mikita has got a big mouth,’’ Cherry told Giuliotti, “and somebody is going to send him back to Czechoslovakia in a pine box.’’
Clearly, this was not your daddy’s Prius hybrid NHL.
“Oh, you got that right,’’ said Nate Greenberg, who began working with the Bruins a couple of seasons prior to Cherry’s arrival and spent more than 30 years with them in a variety of media-related front office capacities. “Stan Mikita in a pine box — imagine saying that today? My word. How’s that for a heated rivalry?!’’
Even by mid-’70s NHL standards, the comment was a bit much. Cherry the next day received a call from league president Clarence Campbell, who made sure he understood the inappropriateness of his words. Continued...