So what did T. S. Eliot know about cruelty? In hockey April is the kindest month, for it brings to a close a seemingly endless regular season and, for most of the teams, begins the playoffs, which at last decide the champions. True enough, those champions will not emerge until the darling buds of May are in bloom. And sure, the postseason structure has become a thing of Messersmithian complexity, but progress is being made; pucks are flying, there is light at the end of the rink.
As the National Hockey League's 1975-76 season came to the bottom of the schedule sheet last Sunday night, confirming what fans had long known about Philadelphia and Montreal being the class of the league and deciding the lingering divisional race between Chicago and Vancouver in the Black Hawks' favor, a man could get an extra measure of satisfaction thinking of the quirks of fortune that produced the season's most fascinating team, the Boston Bruins.
Boston had not merely survived a plague of injuries, it also overcame to an astonishing degree the loss of the player, Bobby Orr; the player, junior grade, Brad Park; and the goal-scorer, Phil Esposito. Orr, the magical defenseman, hockey's most eminent name since Howe, Richard and Hull, has not played since Nov. 26 because of knee and contract complications. Since then the poor deprived Bruins have been 42-14-13.
Park, who had come from the New York Rangers in the Esposito trade, also last November, was supposed to help fill the chasm left by Orr, and he did. But in late February he hurt his knee. Since then Park has had surgery and the Bruins have been 11-4-6.
What happened? The Bruins became a team. They came blinking into the sunlight and found out that they knew something about the game, too. Says the veteran, sweet-shooting Winger John Bucyk, 40, who enjoyed one of the best of his 19 seasons with Boston, "When Bobby went out and Phil was traded, guys came off the bench who had never seen much ice time. And there was no one big star to pass the puck to. Then Brad Park was out, and we all discovered that we could play hockey. We didn't have to let Phil or Bobby or Brad do it—although I admit I wish we had our stars back now."
Bucyk, no stranger to the afflictions that have made the Bruins a skating emergency ward, has a bruised nerve in his arm. Winger Ken Hodge suffers occasionally from a similar ailment. Defenseman Dallas Smith has a tender hip. Defenseman Gary Doak has a cracked rib but plays. Center Gregg Sheppard has fragile legs. Let 'em lose another regular or two and they might go all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
One who isn't hurt is former Ranger Center Jean Ratelle, who has become the team's leading scorer. "Ratelle was the sleeper in the deal for Esposito," says Bruin General Manager Harry Sinden. "He is a magnificent center, but he is not a loner like a Bobby Clarke or a Gil Perreault. He quietly does his job, defensively as well as offensively, but he is the kind of player who depends on his teammates."
Doak and Darryl Edestrand, defense-men who were eclipsed by Orr, have become workmen worthy of some ink of their own, as has oldtimer Smith.
Up forward the story is the same. A tired and disgusted John Davidson, the Ranger goalie who was beaten 8-1 by Boston the other day, said, "It was Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman. I just couldn't see around them." These are two veterans who had been dwarfed by the man they passed the puck to, Esposito. Andre Savard, who played some 12 minutes a game last season, now centers a frequently explosive Bruin line, with Terry O'Reilly and Don Marcotte as his wings. Then there is Sheppard, a man of the Pete Rose 110% effort persuasion. In a recent taut 4-4 tie with champion Philadelphia in the Boston Garden, Sheppard lofted a shot from center ice at recently returned Flyer Goalie Bernie Parent, and the puck lazed over Parent's left shoulder for a goal. A little luck may be riding with the Bruins, too.
After that game, Philadelphia Defenseman Jim Watson said, "It is the Boston forwards doing the job. They hustle incredibly. And they play very well defensively. They forecheck as hard as we do."