Being a level-headed sort, Defenseman Brad Park is careful not to crow unduly over his good fortune with the Boston Bruins. True, Park was suitably elated last week when the Bruins extended their home-ice unbeaten streak at the Boston Garden to 31 games. He also was pleased with his own play, including two goals and an assist in Boston's 4-0 win at Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, followed by a goal and an assist in a 4-2 victory over Vancouver on Thanksgiving in Boston. By these and other means Park helped keep the Bruins, playing their first full season without Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, atop the NHL's Adams Division with an 18-4-1 record, the best in hockey.
Still, Park gloats about all this only up to a point, exercising a restraint that was evident when he and his father-in-law, a gent named Bob George, stopped for lunch the other day at a Boston restaurant called Duke's in the Park. Seated beneath a painting of a reclining nude, Park spoke of many of the changes in his life since he was traded to Boston by the New York Rangers 13 months ago, but he studiously left it to George to fill in some of the happier details of the move. This occurred, for instance, as Park discussed the relative proximity of his handsome home on Boston's North Shore to the Boston Garden.
"When I was with the Rangers, I lived out on Long Island," he said. "It took over an hour to drive to Madison Square Garden for games and there were 65 traffic lights."
"And two tolls," George interjected.
Park nodded and went on. "In Boston it takes me just 20 minutes to get to the rink and there's only one light."
"And no tolls," George said.
It could be that the blessings Park enjoys in Boston are simply too plentiful for any one man to enumerate. This was not the way things were supposed to work out, certainly, when the Rangers dispatched Park, veteran Center Jean Ratelle and minor league Defenseman Joe Zanussi to Boston early last season for Esposito and Defenseman Carol Vadnais. The way everybody had it figured, the key man in the historic swap was the gregarious Esposito, the NHL's leading goal scorer in recent years and a popular figure with Boston fans. Park had also enjoyed considerable success, having been named first-team NHL all-star defense-man in three of his seven seasons with the Rangers. As time wore on, however, the New York press and public had soured on him, concluding he was overweight, overpaid and—though only 27—maybe even over the hill. The word in New York, as elsewhere, was that the Rangers had pulled a slick one on the Bruins.
The verdict today is exactly the opposite. The change is obvious in Boston's Three B's restaurant, where news of the big trade last year set diners to grieving over their veal parmigiana and prompted owner Joe Palladino to cover up the boccie court he had installed in a back room expressly for Esposito. Now Palladino cheerfully admits, "Espo is a good guy, but Parko is, too." Parko? Palladino shrugs. "He's played so well for the Bruins, I gave him an Italian name."
A similar transformation has occurred in Madison Square Garden, where fans lustily booed Park in his last days as a Ranger. The other morning Val Tkaczuk, whose husband Walt plays for the Rangers, phoned the Park residence in suburban Lynnfield. "There was a sign in the Garden yesterday," she related. "It said, 'Brad Park we miss you, please come home.' "
Park was properly moved. "It sure was nice of Val to put up that sign," he said.
Actually, almost any Ranger fan would now identify with the sentiment. Mired in the cellar of the Patrick Division when Park and Ratelle departed, the Rangers never escaped from those depths last season, and the man responsible for the New York side of the trade, General Manager Emile Francis, was eventually fired. The situation in New York is scarcely any better today. Esposito, two months shy of 35 and surrounded by a less talented cast than the one that supported him in Boston, has shown only flashes of his former self, and Vadnais has been a disappointment, too. The Rangers are once again in last place.
The Bruins were also struggling when the trade was made, but thereafter climbed to the top of the Adams Division, where they remained the rest of the season, a singular feat considering that Bobby Orr played only 10 games before departing for a season-ending knee operation. Park also underwent knee surgery—it apparently goes with being a Bruin defenseman—and missed the last 21 regular-season games. Even so, the supposedly washed-up Park was so in command while he was playing that he once again earned a spot on the NHL's first all-star team. And what did Ratelle do? He scored 31 goals.
This season Orr bolted to the Chicago Black Hawks and the Bruins hiked their ticket prices, coincidental developments that resulted in an informal fan boycott of the Boston Garden. Nor did it help at the gate that Don Cherry, the NHL's Coach of the Year last season, was pushing ahead with his efforts to transform the Bruins, so shamefully talented in the Orr-Esposito era, into a disciplined, hard-checking bunch relying on balance instead of brilliance. It sounds rather dull, except that the Bruins, remarkably enough, have rebuilt without suffering the usual period of defeat.
To pull this off, quite a few pieces had to fall into place at once. Out of Esposito's shadow darted Gregg Sheppard, a 5'8" center whose Bobby Clarke-style scrappiness characterizes the new Bruin look. Back from the WHA came erstwhile Boston Goalie Gerry Cheevers, a thoroughbred owner of growing repute—his colt Royal Ski looms large in any early reckoning of the 1977 Kentucky Derby (page 34)—who teams with Gilles Gilbert to form the game's best goaltending combination. And out of the clutches of the properly embarrassed Rangers came Ratelle, who scores goals, forechecks diligently and gets off passes as straight and true as the part in his well-barbered hair. At 36, the lean Ratelle plays as though he were years younger, the payoff for all those evenings he quietly retired to his hotel room to watch the 11 o'clock news, weather and sports.
But above all, the Bruins have benefited from the arrival of Park, who has helped the team alter its style largely by amending his own. With the Rangers, Park was a do-it-all defenseman who was frequently called upon to play tough guy and execute end-to-end rushes. When Park joined the Bruins, Cherry urged him to concentrate more on straight defense. Cherry is positively ecstatic when he says today, "Brad's not as flashy as he used to be, but he's a better player. If you forget about Orr, there's no defenseman I'd rather have." And with Orr's knee still acting up—he has played just two games for the Black Hawks in a month—it is looking more and more as though you can indeed forget about him.
For his part, Park professes to be unconcerned that even after last week's offensive surge against Pittsburgh and Vancouver he has scored just five goals this season, a modest total for somebody who had 25 goals one year for the Rangers. Agreeing with Cherry that his new role has made him more proficient, he says, "Sure, I like to score goals. But, heck, I got one in practice yesterday."
On the ice Park is an intense, even fiery performer, but away from the rink he comes across as temperate and soft-spoken, a smile usually creasing roundish features that have prompted writers in 18 NHL cities to describe him as "moon-faced."
Of course, one reason for his smile is his emancipation from New York, where he came to be haunted, ironically, by the specter of the Boston Bruins. Park joined the Rangers in 1968 at the age of 20, and his poise and aggressiveness made him an immediate favorite in New York. In 1970 he married his first cousin, Gerry George (thus, father-in-law Bob George is also his uncle). In 1972 the WHA beckoned and when the Ranger brass broke out the checkbook to keep the club intact. Park profited with a $200,000-a-year contract that made him, briefly, the highest-paid player in the NHL. Eventually he was named team captain. Everything should have been beautiful for Brad Park.
One problem, though, was that New York writers kept comparing Park to Orr, then as now the man against whom all defensemen—indeed, all hockey players—are measured. The Ranger-Bruin rivalry was already a hot one and such comparisons heated it up all the more. The whole business was unfortunate. The Ranger star was a fine all-round defense-man, but there was only one Orr, something that Park has always been the first to admit.
"Bobby's the greatest hockey player I've ever seen," Park says. "I never said I was as good as he was, others did. But people kept saying, 'Hey, Park, who you kidding? You're no Bobby Orr.' And I've got to admit that I have a lot of confidence and enjoy a challenge. I was influenced by Bobby. Sometimes I'd find myself trying to rush end-to-end like he did, and I'd have to remind myself to stop it."
The situation brought Park particular grief from the Bruins, who saved their most bruising hockey for him. Park's frustration peaked in comments written in his book Play the Man, which became a bestseller around Boston in the spring of 1972, almost on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins and Rangers. In the book Park accused the Bruins of everything from padding statistics to taking sneak punches and called them "a bunch of bloodthirsty animals." That only further inspired Orr & Co., who beat the Rangers for the cup four games to two. "We got a lot of mileage out of that book," recalls Tom Johnson, then the Bruin coach and now the club's assistant general manager. "At least Derek Sanderson had the good sense to write about broads."
It was the continued failure of the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup—their last one came in 1940—that led to the celebrated characterization of them as "fat cats," which was meant to imply, in Park's case, that he was not only pampered but also, literally, fat. Such sniping increased after the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs two years ago by the upstart New York Islanders and their young Defenseman Denis Potvin, whose rise to prominence prompted the question of whether Park was the No. 1 defenseman even in New York. Then came last season's poor start and the sudden unloading of Park and Ratelle to the Bruins.
Park admits his pride was hurt by the trade. "Boston was the last place I expected to go," he says. He wins sympathy from Ratelle, who says, "The trade was tougher on Brad than on me. I was at the age where I was mentally preparing to leave New York anyway. But Brad is still in his prime. It was a real shock for him."
Boston General Manager Harry Sinden, who made the deal for the Bruins, did so for reasons every bit as compelling as the Rangers'. Though no one said so directly, it was whispered in the Bruin organization that Esposito did not back-check, spent too much time on the ice, disagreed with Cherry's coaching philosophy and, in any case, was getting on in years. Boston still had Orr, but Sin-den feared—correctly, it turned out—that Orr's left knee might go and that he might sign with another club. He decided to seek Park as "insurance" after scouting him in two games. "Brad was the best player on the ice in both games," says Sinden. "Of course, when everybody said we made a bad trade, I had a few nervous second thoughts."
It is suggested today that Park has made Sinden look good simply by shedding weight, and while Park dismisses such talk, insiders claim that Park's belts have been pulled in a few telltale notches. Nevertheless, Park has been unburdened in the matter of his rivalry with Orr, even if he had to become his teammate and, finally, successor to do it. It helped that Orr made Park feel welcome during their brief time together on the Bruins, even showing him a place in Boston Garden where he could hide from a hostile press, should the occasion arise.
That it has not arisen is a tribute to how well Park has adapted to the role in which he has been cast by Cherry, a breezy fellow of Scotch-Irish extraction who used to play tenor drum in a bagpipe band. Specifically, the Bruin coach asked Park to work the puck out to the forwards, carrying it himself only when there was a good opening. "I don't want Brad to force it and get caught up-ice," Cherry says. "This way he'll also be relatively fresh the last few minutes when we really need him." It is Cherry's suspicion that Park sometimes huffed and puffed as a Ranger because he was overtaxed. Park pretty much agrees, saying. "A lot of times in New York I was really dragging in the last few minutes of a game."
Park finds life in once-dread Boston so agreeable that he calls to mind Brer Rabbit suddenly cavorting in the briar patch. Certainly it was a contented Park who sat one recent afternoon in the den of his five-bedroom colonial house, which occupies a nicely wooded lot hard by a public golf course and a picture-book skating pond. The Bruins were playing the Washington Capitals that night, and Gerry Park was in the kitchen preparing an early supper of spaghetti for her husband. Four-year-old Jamie Park was watching TV with a chum while brother Robbie, who will turn three next month, was in his crib. As Brad spoke, he patted Quincey, one of the family's two Irish setters.
"Before the trade all I'd really ever seen of Boston was the airport and the rink," he said. "I just didn't realize there were so many pretty areas here. Now we're thinking about living in Boston even after I'm through playing."
The conversation soon turned to Robbie Park. The boy has cerebral palsy, and his motor control is such that he only recently learned to unclench his fists. Last September Park sponsored a charity golf tournament near Boston, the proceeds of which—over $9,000—went to cerebral palsy research. In his den Park said, "Like a lot of handicapped children, Robbie seems to compensate by being good-natured. I suppose it would be easy to feel sorry for ourselves, but he's a super kid and we enjoy him. It's exciting to see him learn to do new things. He'll have to go through braces and crutches, and he'll never be an athlete. But we think that with therapy he'll be able to walk and lead a normal life."
Just then Gerry entered the room carrying Robbie, a chattery youngster who beamed at the sight of his dad. Brad played with the boy, coaxing him to sit up unassisted, which he was able to do for a few seconds at a time. Then it was time for that spaghetti. Afterward Gerry, who is expecting the couple's third child next month, said, "Brad really is as easygoing as he seems. He's awfully good with the boys, especially with Robbie."
That evening Park led Boston to a 3-2 win over Washington. It was another of what Park calls "grind-'em-out games," with the Bruins seeming to play just well enough to win. Park did some nice poke checking in his own end and controlled the tempo of the Boston attack. He was on the bench during both Capital goals and on the ice for all of the Boston scores, including one of his own that put the Bruins ahead 2-1.
The goal came after the puck was sent into the boards behind the Washington net by another new Bruin, Center Peter McNab, a husky, hustling former Buffalo Sabre who was acquired in a preseason trade and has made the front office look like geniuses again by scoring 19 goals in the team's 23 games. The puck took a crazy bounce in front of the goal and Park, risking one of his infrequent intrusions far up-ice, was right there to backhand it in. But he paced himself the way Cherry likes, and he played six of the game's final eight minutes as the Bruins snuffed off the Capitals' efforts to tie the game.
Later, in the dressing room, a radio interviewer stuck a microphone in Park's face and said, "Brad, the Bruins aren't playing exciting hockey but you're winning and...."
"It may not be exciting to you," Park said, smiling. "It's plenty exciting to me."
A different sort of excitement awaited Brad later that night. He and Gerry went to get a bite to eat at Bette's Rolls Royce, then began the drive home around 1 a.m. They were a mile from their house when their 1976 Bonneville ran out of gas. Brad ventured out on the highway and flagged down two teen-agers who gave the Parks a lift the rest of the way home. During the 10 minutes he waited there, a chilled and annoyed figure hitchhiking on a darkened road, Park seemed anything but easygoing.
The next day, however, Park was his relaxed self again, chuckling as he told of the incident. Perhaps he realized that he still got home in 35 minutes, half the time it used to take him after Ranger games in New York with a full tank of gas. He may even have remembered those tolls he saved. He probably was also comforted by the knowledge that he made a couple of new friends for the Bruins. To repay their kindness, he gave the teenagers who picked him up free tickets to the next home game.