Now that the Boston Bruins are making headlines again, it's time to run down the roster to refresh our memories of the old Lunchpail A.C. In goal is the feisty Gerry Cheevers, right? Wrong. Cheevers now coaches the Bruins. O.K., then let's move right on to that old smoothie, Center Jean Ratelle. No, he's one of Cheevers' assistants. Bobby Schmautz? Out of hockey. Punch-out King John Wensink? In Colorado, which is virtually the same thing. And pugnacious Terry O'Reilly? He's still playing for Boston, yet these days it seems he would rather unleash a dazzling pass than a roundhouse right. Brad Park is around, as well, but slowing down. Ditto Don Marcotte and Wayne Cashman. What it all adds up to is that the Lunchpail gang is history.
But send no flowers. In lieu of the old A.C., Cheevers is sending onto the ice a young, sharp-passing, hard-checking but non-intimidating team. And, despite expectations, the Bruins are not in ruins. Far from it. After beating Edmonton 5-2, tying Pittsburgh 3-3 and losing to Buffalo 3-1—hardly a triumphant week—the Bruins were still tied with Montreal for first place in the NHL's Adams Division. With a 10-4-4 record, Boston also was tied for the league's best record with the Canadiens and the New York Islanders, who were both 10-3-4. Moreover, the Bruins had won seven of their nine games on the road.
"No one felt we'd do this well this early in the season," says Tom Johnson, Boston's assistant general manager. "A year ago people kept calling Betty Cheevers on the phone and asking her, 'Is the patient dead yet?' " Cheevers was, and is, fine. It was the era of Boston powerhouse teams that was dying. In 1978 the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup final. In 1979 they were gone in the semis. In 1980 they were eliminated in the quarterfinals, and last April the end came in the preliminaries. Things were so bad in 1980-81 that in December Boston plummeted to 20th place in the 21-team league.
Everywhere General Manager Harry Sinden looked he saw a problem: Cheevers was too unfamiliar with life behind the bench and too familiar with his old teammates; Goalie Rogie Vachon was ducking from the puck; the Bruin skaters were too old and too slow and were playing dump-the-puck-and-chase-it while the NHL's best clubs were skating, passing and shooting. "The game changed overnight, and we were out of sync," says Center Peter McNab. "But now we have caught up."
November 23, 1981
Reasons abound for the Bruin resurrection. Vachon, wearing a cage-style mask now instead of his old close-fitting shell, is stopping the puck, not fighting it. Through 18 games, he and rookie Marco Baron had allowed a total of only 56 goals. Only Montreal and Minnesota had given up fewer. Meanwhile, with more shooters and not as many brawlers on the club, Boston is scoring more, too. Last year, as Cheevers says, "almost every goal was the result of laborious work." In 36 of the 80 games the Bruins got no more than three goals, and never did they score more than seven. This season the Bruins already have scored 10 goals in a game against Quebec and eight against Chicago. At week's end their average was 4.17 a game.
For his part, Cheevers has established his authority and is far more at home in his second year as coach. He's so comfortable, in fact, he no longer keeps a stopwatch to time skating shifts. He now has a feel for how long a line has been on the ice.
And then there are the kids. "Ideally you bring young players up one or two at a time so that they gradually blend in with your veterans," says Sinden. "But we were deteriorating pretty fast. To get back to near the top, we had to make drastic changes."
As a result—well, Park puts it best. "I came home from practice the other day," he says, "and my wife said, 'Why don't you play with the kids?' I said, 'Honey, I've been playing with kids all afternoon.' " Indeed he had. Straight from junior hockey this year came centers Barry Pederson, 20, and Tom Fergus, 19, and Left Wing Normand Leveille, 18. Throw in the youngsters who played at least part of last season with Boston—forwards Keith Crowder, 22, and Steve Kasper, 20; defensemen Brad McCrimmon, 22, Larry Melnyk, 21, and Ray Bourque, 20; and goaltender Baron, 22—and most nights nine of the 19 Bruins dressing are 22 or younger. Another forward, Mike Gillis, obtained from the Rockies last February, is 23.
Most important, these young players are performing like veterans. Bourque, for instance, was a first-team all-star as a rookie two seasons ago and a second-teamer last year. He is the cornerstone of the Bruin defense. Gillis skates full time at left wing on a line with McNab and Rick Middleton, the Bruins' two leading scorers, with 12 goals and 12 assists apiece through last weekend. Pederson (five goals and four assists), Kasper (four and four) and Fergus (three and seven) all get regular shifts.
Cheevers employs Pederson for important face-offs. Kasper, who, along with Bourque, missed the Pittsburgh and Buffalo games with injuries, has emerged as one of the best checkers in the league. No one has had more success thwarting Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's top scorer. In four games last year against the Bruins, Gretzky got a total of one goal and three assists. Last Thursday, Kasper held the Great One to a single shot on goal. Baron has won five games against two losses, and despite yielding six goals before being pulled in the second period against Montreal on Oct. 24, his goals-against average is 2.58.
The most exciting Bruin rookie, though, is the 5'10", 175-pound Leveille, Boston's first-round draft pick last June. During the exhibition season, the Bruins took one look at him and were reminded of Yvan Cournoyer, once a flashy forward for the Canadiens. Before straining ligaments in his left knee against Hartford on Nov. 1, Leveille had five goals and two assists. He should be back in the lineup by early December. A dynamic amalgam of speed and strength, Leveille is a terrific checker and has the hardest shot on the Bruins. He and Baron grew up together in Montreal, and Baron says that when Leveille was nine years old, all the other kids used to hang around to see him shoot a puck.
Successfully overhauling a roster as Boston has done requires precise timing. "It's always in the back of your mind," Sinden says. "You don't want to move too early, before a player is ready. And you can't wait too long, or you might be left with no well-seasoned players still at a level in their games where they can help the youngsters coming up. We took a risk that our timing was right. The season is young, but so far we haven't had to pay for going with these kids."