One by one, the Philadelphia Flyers skated past to pay their respects to Terence Joseph James O'Reilly of the Boston Bruins. This ritual was aimed, as always, at rearranging O'Reilly's face. Mel Bridgman, a bristly forward, led the procession of hit men as the Flyers and Bruins squared off last week at the Boston Garden in the first game of their Stanley Cup semifinal playoff, a series the Bruins led two games to one at week's end. Like his teammates, Bridgman remembers all too well that it was only a year ago that O'Reilly and the Bruins embarrassed the Flyers by wiping them out of the semifinals in four straight games.
As they lined up for the opening face-off, Bridgman stationed himself at left wing, opposite Right Wing O'Reilly. In hockey, unlike basketball, players do not greet their opponents with handshakes or hugs or pats on the rear. Just glares. Seeking an early edge, Bridgman forcefully planted the blade of his stick atop O'Reilly's. O'Reilly yanked his stick away and reversed the procedure. They glared at each other more ferociously, then chased after the puck. Bridgman promptly jostled O'Reilly against the boards to set the theme for Game 1. Defenseman Jimmy Watson hit O'Reilly again to make sure he got the idea.
O'Reilly did. Nine minutes into the game, hoping to stir his teammates from their lethargy, O'Reilly slammed into Bridgman. Offended, Bridgman whipped off his gloves and put up his fists. O'Reilly did the same. They grappled quickly, with O'Reilly trying unsuccessfully to rip off Bridgman's helmet, the better to hit him in the head. ("I worry that someday I'll break a hand on some guy's helmet," O'Reilly says.) Bridgman scored with a hard left. If O'Reilly's face is a map of Ireland, as some say, the punch landed roughly in the area of Galway Bay. The officials pried the players apart while O'Reilly was countering with solid lefts.
The hostilities continued until early in the third period when O'Reilly suddenly encountered a fresh opponent in Defenseman Rick Lapointe. Following a free-swinging melee around Philadelphia Goaltender Bernie Parent, Lapointe challenged O'Reilly to put up or shut up. O'Reilly chose to put up, as always, and after ducking Lapointe's wild first swing, proceeded to pummel the young Flyer with a barrage of punches.
It is important to note that these activities were not as spontaneous as they may have seemed. Although the Bruins won 3-2 on a goal by Rick Middleton in the second minute of sudden-death overtime, Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero was convinced the Flyers lost because they were unable to neutralize O'Reilly's aggressiveness in the corners and in front of Parent. "I wonder if even the Bruins realize how good O'Reilly really is," Shero said. "I know that the rest of the world doesn't understand that O'Reilly is one of the best players in the world. He's much like Bobby Clarke in that he never stops giving second effort. Sometime soon—like right now—I've got to come up with a line that can handle O'Reilly. A line, I said, not just one player."
Shero considered the problem and shook his head. In the quarterfinals against Buffalo, the Flyers had concentrated on containing Sabre Center Gilbert Perreault, the NHL's flashiest skater. And now they were worried about a skater named O'Reilly, who had once received a pair of double-runners as a Christmas present from Bobby Orr. "On skates," Orr said at the time, "Terry is about as smooth as a stucco bathtub."
"Aw, skating is far overrated in hockey today," Shero said. "For all Perreault's great skating ability, what does he ever accomplish? Now take O'Reilly. Sure, he's an awkward skater. Just like Clarke, who can't skate either. But O'Reilly, like Clarke, always arrives at his destination on time—and with a bang."
For that reason, and also because of his name, Terry O'Reilly is easily the most popular hockey player in Boston. To the shot-and-a-beer lunch-pail crowd, he is that nice O'Reilly lad, the hod carrier who lives on the top floor of the three-decker on the corner of L Street and Seventh in Southie—where they have open house every Saint Paddy's Day. To the kids playing street hockey in Charlestown and Maiden, O'Reilly is "Taz"—the Tasmanian Devil, the whirlwind character from the Saturday morning TV cartoons. To Boston General Manager Harry Sinden, he is an income producer, well worth his $100,000 annual salary. "In Boston, Montreal, Toronto—in cities all over the league—thousands of people will pay money to watch Terry O'Reilly play hockey," Sinden says. "Why? He's fun to watch and he works so hard."
This season the 26-year-old O'Reilly became only the second player in NHL history to lead his team in both scoring (90 points on 29 goals and 61 assists) and penalty minutes (211). It hadn't come easily: when O'Reilly joined the Bruins in 1972 after scoring only nine goals in the minor leagues the previous season, the general reaction was that the Bruins had hired another goon. "When I first saw him," Shero recalls, "I thought he was a nothing as a player." In his first season with Boston, O'Reilly scored only five goals—a couple of them actually were shots by Boston teammates that ricocheted into the net off his body—but won a regular job because of his willingness to bang bodies in the corners and play policeman.
"My problem was that I couldn't skate very well," O'Reilly says. "As a kid I played goalie for four years and didn't skate as much as the other players. After my first year in Boston, I skated for three hours each day all summer. I'm still not very graceful and my balance isn't great, but I get there."
If he wasn't able to score many goals, O'Reilly did build a reputation as one of the best pure punchers in hockey. "My feet wouldn't take me where I wanted to go," he says, "so in those days, fighting was a way for me to release all of my frustrations."
As O'Reilly improved his skating, he also improved his hockey skills, if not his shot. "I knew I'd never be much of a gunner," he says. "My classic goal is a shot from the crease into an empty net, with the goaltender caught on the other side." Instead, O'Reilly mastered the art of playing the puck along the boards and in the corners. "He handles the puck better with his skates than a lot of players do with their sticks," says Boston Coach Don Cherry. "You ought to see him in practice. No stick. Just O'Reilly and the puck and the boards. All three of them take a beating, mind you, but now O'Reilly can make the puck talk."
With all that, it figured that one person was on Shero's mind before Game 2 on Thursday night. "What do you do?" he said. "I can't tell one of my guys to jump O'Reilly and get him out of the game when the referee is not looking. How do you stop him?"
For the second game, Shero decided to fight muscle with muscle. Each time O'Reilly appeared on the ice, a couple of brawny Flyers seemed to materialize out of thin air. Bridgman bumped O'Reilly a couple of times. After one exchange, they fell to the ice and Bridgman did not get up for several minutes; he missed more than a full period of action. Pugnacious Dave Hoyda, Philadelphia's designated hitter, roared off the bench once and charged O'Reilly at breakneck speed. Seeing Hoyda—and suspecting his intentions—O'Reilly neatly jumped out of the way. Hoyda crash-landed against a teammate and both of them fell to the ice. Then Don Saleski tried his luck without much success, and even Bob Kelly spent a few shifts chasing O'Reilly against the boards. None of the rough stuff worked.
While all this was going on, Boston was building up a 5-1 lead. And then Boston was blowing a 5-1 lead as Philadelphia rallied to tie the score early in the final period. "We were dead on the bench," said Boston's Wayne Cashman. "We were looking for a lift when O'Reilly slammed into Tom Bladon—a great check. I saw Bladon fly by and he had a postage stamp on him. The Taz really mailed him. That woke us up."
Moments later, Middleton, the hero of Game 1, once again found himself all alone in front of Parent. Defenseman Brad Park spotted Middleton, threaded a perfect pass onto his stick, and in less time than it takes Fred Shero to say Terence Joseph James O'Reilly, Middleton flicked the puck over the sprawling Parent. Boston quickly scored another goal and won the game 7-5 to take a 2-0 lead over the Flyers.
The situation seemed to demand still another strategy for Sunday night's Game 3 in Philadelphia. This time the Flyers more or less ignored O'Reilly and concentrated instead on close-checking all the Bruins. It worked better than belting just one man: when the tamest game in years was over, the Flyers had gained a 3-1 victory. The only possible shadow hanging over Shero's plan was that O'Reilly was now well rested to fight again another day.