Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins: 40+ Years in the Making

Finally, since moving to the Western Conference for the 1970 – 1971 season, the Chicago Blackhawks are in the Stanley Cup finals with Original Six counterpart Boston Bruins. This holds more than passing interest for this fan, who saw his first Hawks – Bruins game in 1960, but would have been more fun if it had happened at least six years earlier.

Bruins vs. Black Hawks, 1960  
Our father began taking us to Chicago Stadium in the 1950s. We saw one of the great Montreal Canadiens teams on New Year’s Day in 1959 and the Boston Bruins on February 27, 1960; the ticket in the first balcony was $2.00, about $15.50 in today’s money. Exactly 34 years to the day, I attended my last game at the Stadium, a 4-0 win for the Bruins for which viewers in Boston got a quick glimpse of me at the first stoppage of play.

Black Hawks program cover, 1958 - 1959

Attending college in Boston meant Hawks-Bruins game at the Boston Garden and watching Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito vs. Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson. Unlike the Celtics, for whom you could even get playoff tickets without difficulty, the Bruins were a higher priced, more sought-after ticket. One year I bought obstructed view seats, which in effect were standing-room. For a January 1971 appearance, I set out with $10 in my pocket, vowing to come back with half of it. Nobody was selling for less than $10, and I’d given up hope when just before game time, I heard some kid shouting, “Who wants to get in for $5? Who wants to get in for $5?” Skeptical at first, I asked him how. “Go outside, up the stairs and give the guy on the landing $5,” he said. I bounded up the stairs, handed a man in a suede coat half of my money and walked through a turnstile manned by a uniformed usher (no ticket provided) into the Garden. The usher was talking to a uniformed Boston policeman. The Bruins would win that night, 6-2, but the Hawks would go on to break our hearts, blowing a lead and the Cup to the Canadiens in game 7 at the Stadium.

The family in Boston Garden, 1992 

One of my college roommates, Nate Greenberg, was already covering sports for the Boston Herald Traveler while carrying a full course load. He would eventually lose his full-time job at the newspaper after it was acquired by the Hearst Corporation and merged with the Record American. Through skill and a stroke of good timing, he became the Bruins’ first full-time public-relations director in 1973. I’d lost touch with Nate until late 1983, when we reconnected for a most interesting game. On December 18, the Black Hawks (as they were known then) retired Bobby Hull’s number, despite residual mutual ill will over his defection to the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA in 1972. As we walked through the concourse, Nate spotted Hawks executive Bob Pulford, not the most popular guy, approaching. “I’m going to yank Pulford’s chain,” he told me. “Hey, Pully,” Nate said, “Why are you retiring this guy’s number after all of the trouble he gave you?” In typical Pulford fashion – he didn’t like Hull from his playing days with Toronto – he muttered something unintelligible while looking at the floor and not breaking stride. 

The night #9 was retired: Dec. 18, 1983

Over the years, Nate arranged tickets for Bruins games not only in Chicago but also in Florida (first ever appearance), Detroit, Philadelphia and Denver. Until the old guard retired, the Florida Panthers, out of friendship with Nate, comped our tickets every year, regardless of the opponent, except one. For the Hawks, it was the other way around; they finally comped the tickets for their second appearance one season after Nate told them I’d taken out a second mortgage to pay for the ($75) tickets for the previous game. On three separate occasions, Nate arranged for tickets directly behind the Bruins bench, where we watched coaches Steve Kasper, Pat Burns and Robbie Ftorek work up close and personal.

Seats behind the Bruins bench, 2003
During Nate’s tenure, I watched games in the press box in the last season in the old Garden – 1995 – and his last season with the team in 2007. Both were memorable events.

Boston Bruins media pass, March 22, 2007

Because of a lockout, my plans for seeing the final Blackhawks game at the Garden gave way to attending a Saturday game vs. the Cup champion New York Rangers. The press boxes in the old Garden were crow’s nests hanging from this second balcony, which provided a great view of the ice. After the game, while Nate tended to Bruins business, I loitered outside the Rangers locker room, where I saw Mark Messier emerge and shower attention on a young Rangers fan confined to a wheelchair. The Rangers captain signed numerous collector cards, posed for pictures with the boy and then commandeered an onlooker to photograph the mother with him and her son.

Nate had a serious inkling that 2006 – 2007 would be his last season with the team. With that in mind and the Hawks not playing in Boston, March 22 – a weekday and my birthday – was the best time for another press-box visit. The new Garden made sure the paying customers got the best seats, so the press box was located in a level that ringed the top of the arena, for which you could walk around the entire distance except for a glassed-in area containing electronic equipment. I rode the elevator up with Guy LeFleur and Bob Gainey – the Canadiens were the opponent that night – and settled into seat #2 (Nate’s of course was #1). The gentleman in seat #3 was former Stanley Cup goaltender and coach Gerry Cheevers, who chatted amiably until departing after one period. It turned out this was his first appearance in the Garden that season, having been let go as a scout months before. Cheevers departed after the 1st period. And, for the first and I’m sure only time, my name and birthday greetings graced a scoreboard. 
TD Garden, March 22, 2007

After 34 years with the Bruins, Nate indeed "retired." I'll leave it at that. We will never see a Stanley Cup final together - we almost did when Detroit won the Western Conference but the Bruins were eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals some years back - but at least the dream match-up finally came to pass. Unless a ticket drops out of nowhere, I will be watching Game 5 (and perhaps Game 7) just like Nate: in the best seat in the house, a lounge chair in front of the HD TV. It will surely beat watching the Hawks blow the Cup in 1971 in a beat-up chair in front of a black-and-white console TV in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.