The great ones often have nicknames, apt little catchphrases that suggest a special skill or style. Bernie Geoffrion had a thunderous slap shot, so he became Boom-Boom. For getting up and down the ice but fast, Maurice Richard probably had no peer, thus The Rocket. Bobby Hull had blond locks and skated like the wind, ergo The Golden Jet. To watch Montreal's Guy Lafleur is to behold a thing of beauty, so, translating his surname, he's The Flower.
And then there's Rick Middleton. His Boston Bruin teammates call him Nifty. Why? Forward Keith Crowder answers, "Just watch him."
Defenseman Brad Park, a five-time All-Star who is now in his 14th NHL season, says, "I've seen them all, and Nifty's the best one-on-one player in hockey. Take anyone in the league, give Nifty the puck, and 90% of the time he'll turn the other guy inside out."
Combining superb quickness and stickhandling with unusual balance and instinct, Middleton, a forward, not only is one of the league's most stylish players, but also is emerging, in his seventh season, as a scorer. Last year he had a team-high 92 points on 40 goals and 52 assists. With two weeks remaining this season, Middleton had already surpassed those totals. After the Bruins' 4-3 victory over Calgary on Saturday, he had a career-high 42 goals and 55 assists, tying him for eighth in the league in scoring.
Middleton logs more ice time than any Bruin except defense-men Park and Ray Bourque. He works the power play, kills penalties and protects late leads. The opposition keys on Middleton, too, because he's Boston's only genuine threat to "create" a goal: for the most part the other Bruins qualify as muckers, members of the so-called Lunchpail A.C., who score on goal-mouth tip-ins, rebounds or unintentional deflections.
"Boston's what you'd call a backward team, the only one in the league." says one NHL coach. "Except for Middleton, the Bruins get almost no offense from their forwards. Except for Middleton, the Bruins get their offense from the defense. It should be the other way around."
Middleton doesn't stand out on the ice, at least not right away. He doesn't have the breakaway speed of Lafleur, Buffalo's Gilbert Perreault or Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne. Nor does he have the quick, no-look release of the Islanders' Mike Bossy. Instead, he weaves effortlessly, economically about the ice. It's those tiny moves that set Middleton apart. A leg fake here, a shoulder dip there, maybe even the twitch of an eyelid, and suddenly Nifty has the puck and is off.
"It's no great secret," Middleton says. "You don't have to fly up and down the rink to be effective. You just go with the flow, wait for an opening and then you pounce." Of course, Middleton is fully capable of making an opening or two himself. Jim Craig, the U.S. Olympic hero who's now Boston's No. 3 goal-tender, says that of all the scorers he has faced, Middleton's the most talented at giving the puck, taking it away and then sliding it into the net—right between the goalie's legs.
To get to the bottom of Middleton's success, one must search all the way down to his skates. The blades on most players' skates are fastened to the boot with steel rivets. Because the shifty Middleton seems to skate on his ankles half the time, his blades are attached with more durable copper studs. Bruin Trainer Dan Canney says that without the copper studs Middleton would "be popping his skates off all night." In his 18 years on the job, Canney has met only one other player who required copper studs. Bobby Orr.
At times Middleton can be simply spectacular. His sliding-face-down-by-the-goal-mouth-arms-fully-extended-goal-from-an-impossible-angle during the Stanley Cup playoffs two seasons back would make the alltime NHL highlight film. And then there was the score against Toronto earlier that same year. Middleton was on a breakaway, at midice on the right side. A step behind, angling in on him from the left, was Lanny McDonald, then of the Maple Leafs. At the blue line McDonald realized he couldn't get close enough to Middleton to do any formal checking, so he dived face down across Middleton's path. Just a wink before McDonald touched ice, Middleton, who was ripping along at about 25 mph, backhanded the puck under McDonald's belly. An instant later he hurtled over McDonald, gathered in the sliding puck and snapped a wrist shot past Goaltender Mike Palmateer.
Middleton stands 5'11" and weighs a lumpy 170 pounds. He has a thick eyebrow that extends across his forehead, puffy eyes and thinning blond hair, all of which make him look far older than his 27 years. Maybe there's a reason. In 1973, after being named the MVP of the amateur Ontario Hockey Association, Middleton was drafted in the first round by the Rangers. In 1973-74 he played for New York's farm club in Providence and was selected Rookie of the Year in the American Hockey League. The following season he was called up by the Rangers. Everything should have been terrific, but then the roof caved in.
As an NHL rookie, Middleton scored 22 goals, but he lost a few teeth and broke his left leg, which caused him to miss 33 games. Next year was worse. Early in the 1975-76 season New York acquired Phil Esposito from Boston, where he had rewritten the NHL goal-scoring records. Shortly thereafter New York fired General Manager Emile Francis and Coach Ron Stewart and replaced them with former Montreal tough guy John Ferguson. The Rangers finished with a 29-42-9 record and failed to make the playoffs. Middleton was miserable, and so was Espo, who figured New York's major shortcoming was the lack of a brawny wing who could dig the puck out of the corners for him, as Wayne Cashman and Ken Hodge had done in Boston. He had a solution—get Hodge.
The deal was struck in May of 1976: Hodge for Middleton. It was rumored that the Ranger hierarchy had soured on Middleton because he was thought to be a "bad liver" off the ice. "I kept wondering if New York wanted to get rid of me, or if Boston really wanted me," Middleton says. "I found out only recently that the Bruins did want me."
This will be Middleton's third consecutive season as the Bruins' top scorer. Hodge had a so-so year in New York and another in the minors before dropping out of hockey. Says one NHL official, "It was a typical Ranger trade. Awful."
But Nifty was no overnight sensation in Boston. "My job had always been to go to the net, to score," he says. "Before I came to the Bruins, if anybody ever told me to cover some player on the other team, I honestly don't remember it." Middleton's passive style hardly endeared him to Don Cherry, the then Boston coach, who believes hockey games are decided in the corners.
Middleton struggled through the 1976-77 season and part of the next. First he was a fourth-line right wing, and then he was switched to the left side. At times he was supposed to cover the third opposing player to enter the Boston zone. Other times his man was the big scoring threat. Mainly, Middleton was confused. Once in Buffalo, he stormed after high-scoring Danny Gare, who he figured was the man to cover on a Sabre breakaway. Gare passed the puck around Middleton to low-scoring Defenseman Bill Hajt, who was precisely where Cherry thought Middleton ought to have been. Hajt scored. Cherry yanked Middleton off the ice and shouted in his face. Middleton and Peter McNab, roommates at the time, used to lose a lot of sleep because of Cherry. One would ask the other, "What does the man want?"
Midway through the 1977-78 season Middleton found out. "It came step by step," he says. "Suddenly, late in tight games I was still on the ice. I got a whiff of confidence. I started to see how playing defense really does lead into playing offense. It's weird, but checking makes things happen. It opens up the ice. You get passes at the blue line, not at the circle." Middleton finished that season with 25 goals and 35 assists—and hasn't stopped scoring since.
As Middleton goes, so go the Bruins. This season each got off to a terrible start. The Bruins won just three of their first 15 games and none of their first six on the road. In early January Middleton had only 15 goals, and Boston was in 14th place in the 21-team standings with a 13-10-7 record. Since then, Middleton has scored 27 goals—more than anybody in the NHL during that span except Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky. Six of those goals have been game winners. During Middleton's streak the Bruins have gone 21-17-5 and are skate to skate with Minnesota for the eighth and final home-ice advantage playoff spot; the Bruins and North Stars seem certain to meet in the opening round.
"Hockey's a game of streaks," Middleton says. "We're not quite at our peak yet, but I think we're pretty close."
So are the playoffs. Nifty and the Bruins bear watching.