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Still Wild about Harry

April 01, 1991
April 01, 1991

Table of Contents
April 1, 1991

NCAA Midwest
NCAA West
NCAA East
NCAA Southeast
Bo Jackson
The WLAF
Not-Really Rookies
Harry Sinden
College Basketball
Texas Western
Point After

Still Wild about Harry

Thanks to Harry Sinden, a fiery throwback, the Bruins haven't had a losing season in 24 years

The tie is at half-mast, the hair is mussed and the shirt looks as if it has been mucking it up in the office corners. Say this for the Van Heusen, though. At least it's dry, which is a sign that it has been a relatively calm afternoon for Harry Sinden, president, general manager and, for the past 19 years, soul and architect of the Boston Bruins. When things are not so calm—during contract negotiations, for example—Sinden, in the words of one agent, "can come out of there with two goats under his arms."

This is an article from the April 1, 1991 issue Original Layout

Some sports executives are dapper, some are casual and some seem to blend in unassumingly with the office scenery. Then there's Sinden, a grinder of a general manager, a man who has been trapped in his street clothes during the sudden-death overtime of life. "He works his clothes hard," says Bruin coach Mike Milbury. "Harry sweats more during a game than [Boston defenseman] Ray Bourque. He's the closest thing to a perpetual motion machine that I know."

It is Milbury who has drawn Sinden to the phone now, pleading on the eve of the March 5 NHL trading deadline for Sinden to make one of his something-for-nothing deals. Nothing so dramatic as Sinden's 1986 fleecing of the Vancouver Canucks, to whom he sent Barry Pederson in exchange for Cam Neely—a player who it seems was born to be a Bruin—and a first-round draft choice, which turned out to be defenseman Glen Wesley. Perhaps something along the lines of two of Sinden's swaps last season. The first, with the Washington Capitals, brought veteran winger Dave Christian, who had 32 goals this season as of Sunday, for Bob Joyce, who has spent most of the year in the minors. Or the midseason trade in which he sent Ken Linseman to the Philadelphia Flyers for Dave Poulin, a smart and inspiriting center who helped propel the Bruins into the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years and for the fifth time during Sinden's tenure as G.M. Or even something as modest as last June's trade, which brought tough-guy Chris Nilan back to his native Beantown for little-used winger Greg Johnston. The deal worked so well that Milbury selected Nilan for this year's All-Star team.

However, with both Nilan and Poulin injured and center Bobby Carpenter out for the season, the Bruins needed something. "My phone hasn't been ringing," Sinden tells Milbury. "Give me a name."

Milbury, who is calling from Toronto, where the Bruins are playing the next night, gives him a name. "I like him," says Sinden. "They want too much for him. What do you think, they're giving these players away?"

In a minute Sinden hangs up. "Coaches are all alike," he says with a chuckle. "I don't blame Mike. You want a lift, so you get someone who gives you a lift for three games, and then what? You've lost a draft choice."

Last season Sinden parted with a second-round draft choice in 1990 to get veteran winger Brian Propp from Philadelphia at the trading deadline. Propp helped the team briefly, but was only so-so during the playoffs. Over the summer, he signed as a free agent with the Minnesota North Stars.

"You've got to be careful of late-season trades," says Sinden. "Moving-van trades, I call them, because the moving-van companies are the only ones who make out well. Neither club benefits. When players don't feel that responsibility and accountability toward each other, it's tough to win. In 1973 I brought in [goaltender] Jacques Plante at the trading deadline. He won all eight games he played for us and took us from fourth to second. But the players hated him, and they hated me for doing it. We lost to the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. I had brought in a better goalie, but I'd taken away an integral part of the team—Eddie Johnston, who'd been our goalie and whom the guys loved. That was a mistake."

Sinden doesn't make many mistakes, which could be why the Bruins—his Bruins—have gone 24 years since their last losing season. That is the longest active winning streak in professional sports. In NHL history, it ranks second only to the 32 straight winning seasons that the Montreal Canadiens had between 1951-52 and 1982-83.

The Bruins' streak began in 1967-68, when Sinden was their second-year coach, and has survived the departure of Bobby Orr, the trade of Phil Esposito, the World Hockey Association, 10 coaching changes, five team presidents, a change in ownership and the rise and fall of dynasties put together by the Canadiens and the New York Islanders.

Through it all, with the exception of the 1970-71 and 1971-72 seasons, when Sinden left the team because of a salary dispute and entered private business, he has been the constant. He has molded a team that year after year plays—and wins—in a style that is pure gold-and-black. Tough. Honest in its effort. Physical. No showboating. Strong defense.

"I look at hockey as a simple game, a game you should look at in terms of generalities rather than specifics," says Sinden, whose longevity among NHL general managers is matched only by Cliff Fletcher of the Calgary Flames and the Islanders' Bill Torrey, who also took over their teams in 1972. "It's the attitude of the players, not their skill, that is the biggest factor in determining whether you win or lose. Talent only pays off when there's no difference in attitude between the two teams. Everything else stems from that. If a team checks well, it has a chance of winning every game. Anybody can play defense if he's not lazy. Defense is nothing more than applying yourself."

Unexciting as that may sound, that is Sinden's philosophy of hockey. It has not wavered over the years. He spits out the word lazy as another man would wife beater or child molester. There are no lazy Bruins. And Sinden's vision is unclouded by modern sensibilities. He is unapologetically old-school.

"If you don't watch out, you'll think that videotape and lifting weights and aerobic dance classes are the keys to winning," he says. "They have their place, but a lot of things that win hockey games were established long ago. The player's first obligation is to his teammates. Not his wife. Not his father. No one else. When a team wins a game, you don't see the players running into the stands to hug their wives. They hug each other. Your peers are what motivate you more than anything else."

That is what it means to be a Bruin, and it isn't just talk. To Sinden, a Bruin is a Bruin for life. When Derek Sanderson needed a hip replacement in 1981, seven years after his final season with Boston, Sinden lent him money for the operation. "I was broke and he came up big," says Sanderson, now the color commentator for Bruin telecasts—again, with a push from Sinden. "Harry doesn't turn his back on anybody."

The only trade Sinden ever made in anger—and recalling the incident still makes him mad because he blames himself for not waiting for a better deal-came a day into the 1985—86 season. Tom Fergus, who had scored 98 goals for the Bruins over the previous four seasons, had lost an arbitration ruling concerning a clause in his contract and told a reporter that he didn't care if he ever wore a Boston uniform again. Sinden heard about Fergus's remark and traded him to Toronto the next day. "I got Bill Derlago for him, which was nothing," says Sinden, "but I was so mad, they could have said King Clancy and I'd have taken him." (Clancy, who recently died, would have been 82 at the time.)

"He operates as a G.M. like he did as a coach," says Milbury. "He attacks problems. He attacks life. I've been amazed at the intensity and enthusiasm he still summons up for the games. He hasn't softened his expectations and demands on people one bit."

Sinden, 58, was born in Collins Bay, Ont., and, like countless other Canadian kids, grew up dreaming of playing in the NHL. He was a not very big and not very fast defenseman, but he was smart. He figured he would never make the six-team NHL. So, after getting married at age 20—he and his wife, Eleanor, have four daughters—Sinden turned down the chance to play in the minors and took a job as a power plant engineer in the General Motors factory outside Toronto. In the evenings, Sinden played hockey for an amateur team sponsored by the Dunlop Tire Company called the Whitby Dun-lops. The players were paid $15 a game.

The Dunlops had an excellent team, and in 1957, with Sinden as captain, they won the Allan Cup as the top amateur team in Canada. In 1958, the Dunlops won the world amateur championship in Oslo. Sinden was a mainstay on the Canadian Olympic team in 1960, a squad whose only loss was a 2-1 upset at the hands of the unheralded U.S. team that won the gold medal in Squaw Valley.

The Eastern Professional Hockey League was formed in 1961, and, naturally, it was looking for players. Sinden, who had invested eight years at General Motors and was making $5,200 a year, wasn't interested in leaving that behind to play defense in the minor leagues. But when the Bruins' farm club in Kingston, Ont., offered him the position of player-coach at the identical $5,200, Sinden accepted. "I figured if I couldn't make it into the NHL as a player, I might be able to do it as a coach," he says.

He figured right. In the next five seasons, player-coach Sinden advanced up the ladder of the Bruin organization, from Kingston to Minneapolis to Oklahoma City, where he led a team whose players included Sanderson, Glen Sather and Gerry Cheevers to the Central Hockey League title in 1965-66. The next season, at 34, Sinden became the Bruins' coach.

In those days, the team wasn't known as the Big Bad Bruins or anything else that hinted of pride. The Bruins were just plain bad. They finished in the cellar of the six-team league every year between 1960-61 and 1964-65 and had moved all the way up to fifth the season before Sinden's arrival, and then, in Sinden's words, "they brought up this brilliant young coach from Oklahoma City who took them down to sixth again. It's funny. At the end of my first year I probably should have lost my job, but I was saved, I suppose, because they didn't want to pay off the second year of my contract—16 thousand dollars."

That was the last losing season Boston had. Of course, it didn't hurt Sinden that Orr came on the scene the same year that Sinden joined the Bruins or that the 1967-68 season introduced three new players who arrived from the Chicago Blackhawks: Esposito, Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge. That was also the season that Sinden brought Sanderson up from Oklahoma City to stay, and Sanderson became Rookie of the Year. The Big Bad Bruins were born.

"The Rangers were known as a slick passing team," says Sinden. "Toronto had this great checking team. Montreal was the Flying Frenchmen. But Boston didn't have an identity. We weren't known as anything. I remember Hodge and Johnny McKenzie getting into a brawl one night, and afterward I said, 'That was really good, that's kind of our identity.' We had Ted Green and Wayne Cashman and Cheevers and some pretty tough players. I don't think we realized when we started establishing that identity how many really good players we had."

They were a spirited group. Once, when Esposito was recovering from knee surgery, some teammates rolled him out of the hospital on a gurney and down to a bar where the Bruins were imbibing. "Things were different then," says Sinden. "That behavior would be unacceptable now. But that team, when it came time to play, they could really play. And I worked the hell out of them in practice."

For a man whose convictions about hockey are something out of Clan of the Cave Bear, Sinden has surprisingly refined tastes. He likes to cook, a hobby he picked up when he was coaching. The Bruins used to play at home on Sunday nights, and Sinden discovered that cooking on Sunday afternoons was a better way of relaxing than watching the NFL on television. Making bread—particularly kneading the dough—was especially good for relieving his tensions. Chicken marengo is his favorite dish to prepare, not so much because of its taste, but because Sinden is also a history buff with a special interest in military history. Chicken marengo, he will tell you, was the first meal served to Napoleon after he had won the battle of Marengo. Sinden can be found each Columbus Day poking around the wholesale fruit markets in Chelsea, Mass., buying grapes that he will crush at a neighbor's house to make his own wine. An unpretentious blush of deep amber color, it is as potent and unsubtle as the elbow of a Bruins forechecker, but it goes down a lot more smoothly.

In 1970, with Sinden behind the bench, the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 29 years, sweeping the last 10 games of the playoffs. Most hockey people feel that should have been the start of a dynasty. However, Sinden, who was making $18,000 a year to coach—the Bruins had given him a $2,000 raise to buy new clothes to wear behind the bench—was offered $40,000 by an old friend to become director of sales for Stirling Homex, a firm that made prefabricated housing in Avon, N.Y. When Sinden told Weston Adams, the Bruins' president, about the offer and requested a raise to bring his salary in line with the $25,000 to $30,000 the other top coaches were making, Adams turned him down. So Sinden left. "I thought I was going to make a zillion dollars," says Sinden, who was also given more than a million dollars in Stirling stock options. "But I was crying like a baby when I took it."

Sinden's zillion dollars never materialized, and in 1972 Stirling Homex went bankrupt. He lost all of his savings, which he had invested in the company. He was out of a job, out of money and out of hockey, until Alan Eagleson, the head of the NHL's players' union, who also organized the league's international events, called to ask Sinden to be coach and general manager of Team Canada, the first NHL All-Star team to play a series against the Soviets.

It was one of the most emotional and exciting episodes in hockey history. The NHLers went 1-3-1 in the first five games and needed to win the last three, all in the Soviet Union, to prevail four games to three, with one tie. "It was like we were traitors, not just losers," Sinden recalls of his team's rocky start. "I knew how good the Russians were. I got our team in a room and tried to show them films of the 1958 world championships, but they were just laughing their heads off. In hysterics. Finally, I just turned the machine off. I kept trying to get their attention, but it took the Russians to wake them up." After the series, which Team Canada eventually won, Sinden was hired as general manager of the Bruins, a task that would prove to be nearly as daunting.

The WHA was getting started, and Boston, which had won its second Cup in three years, in 1971-72, began to self-destruct as Cheevers, McKenzie and Sanderson jumped to the rival league to grab for the dollars. On Nov. 7, 1975, Sinden closed the door on an era when he swung one of the biggest deals in hockey history, sending Esposito and Carol Vadnais to the Rangers for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle. Armed with the wisdom of hindsight, one can see it was an excellent trade for the Bruins, but at the time it was so unpopular in Boston that Sinden received death threats.

"The deal was fraught with danger," says Sinden. "The fans hated it, the team hated it, the press hated it. But I had a gut feeling that it would work because of Park, who was a dominant defenseman, and because we knew that Orr's knee was in peril. Once you feel in your gut a deal will help your team and you don't act on it, then it's time to look for a new job."

After the 1975-76 season, Sinden again took heat when Orr, a free agent, left the Bruins for Chicago in a rancorous parting. The contract negotiations had been handled by Boston president Paul Mooney, but Sinden was painted as the culprit. "We had a [season-ticket] waiting list of 30,000 people that disappeared in 30 seconds once Orr left," says Nate Greenberg, the Bruins' assistant to the president, who was p.r. director at the time. "That was a bitter divorce, and it hurt the franchise immensely. And Harry was front and center through it all."

How did Sinden survive? By winning. Boston lost the best player in hockey, but Sinden never missed a beat. Between 1975-76 and 1978-79, the Bruins won 48, 49, 51 and 43 games, respectively, amassing 100 points or more and winning the Adams Division each year. They advanced to the Stanley Cup finals twice, losing both times to a Canadiens team that is considered one of the strongest in history.

Boston's winning continued through the '80s. Coaches came and went. Players came and went. But Sinden remained, taking care that the team always had enough veterans to teach the younger players what it meant to be a Bruin. Players like Cashman, Milbury and Terry O'Reilly passed along the message. And by trading up in the draft, Sinden always made sure that the Bruins were blessed with a dominant defenseman. "Through all the years, we have had perhaps the best defensemen in hockey: Orr, then Park, now Bourque. And I'm always going to have one, because when Bourque quits, I'm gone."

Sinden may not be kidding. He has Bourque under contract for three seasons after this one, which, he says, fits nicely into his retirement plans. "It was an extraordinary thing Harry did when he opened up Ray's contract this summer," says Bourque's agent, Steve Freyer.

Bourque was already under contract with Boston for three years at $525,000 a year, but Sinden, in a move that nearly destroyed his reputation for frugality, suggested the Bruins renegotiate when the St. Louis Blues signed defenseman Scott Stevens for $1.28 million per year. Bourque now makes slightly more than that. "Harry did it out of nothing but a sense of fairness," says Freyer. "He had told Ray that as long as he was playing as the best defenseman, he'd be paid as the best defenseman. It was still the most difficult negotiations I've ever been through. He called me Saddam Hussein at one point."

The one blight on Sin-den's record is that as a G.M., he has never won the Cup. "It's something that we look at as a weakness in the organization and in me," says Sinden, with characteristic blunt-ness. Five times his teams have reached the finals and lost: The Flyers beat them in 1974, the Canadiens in 1977 and '78 and the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 and '90.

This season's Bruins are again among the league's top teams—they've clinched the Adams Division title and after Sunday's games they had a 42-23-12 record—but they have struggled with so many injuries that even Sinden speaks guardedly of their chances. Carpenter, Nilan, Poulin, Randy Burridge and Lyndon Byers have missed a total of 197 games, while defensemen Gord Kluzak and Michael Thelven have finally abandoned their comebacks and retired. "The playoffs are so precarious," says Sinden, "We've got to have everything come together to win. With all the injuries we've had, I'm surprised we've remained competitive with the top teams. A guy said to me last week, 'Harry, you're doing it with mirrors.' I told him, 'You know, you're right. And they're the same mirrors I bought 20 years ago. I hope they never break.' "

As long as they're in Sinden's hands, they never will.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERPHOTOTONY TRIOLOThe 1966 arrival of Orr started something special for Sinden and Boston.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERIn 1970, with Sinden behind the bench, the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 29 years.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERWith Orr, Park (below left) and Bourque (77), Sinden has always had the top defenseman.PHOTOJOHN D. HANLON[See caption above.]