Actually, almost any Ranger fan would now identify with the sentiment. Mired in the cellar of the Patrick Division when Park and Ratelle departed, the Rangers never escaped from those depths last season, and the man responsible for the New York side of the trade, General Manager Emile Francis, was eventually fired. The situation in New York is scarcely any better today. Esposito, two months shy of 35 and surrounded by a less talented cast than the one that supported him in Boston, has shown only flashes of his former self, and Vadnais has been a disappointment, too. The Rangers are once again in last place.
The Bruins were also struggling when the trade was made, but thereafter climbed to the top of the Adams Division, where they remained the rest of the season, a singular feat considering that Bobby Orr played only 10 games before departing for a season-ending knee operation. Park also underwent knee surgery—it apparently goes with being a Bruin defenseman—and missed the last 21 regular-season games. Even so, the supposedly washed-up Park was so in command while he was playing that he once again earned a spot on the NHL's first all-star team. And what did Ratelle do? He scored 31 goals.
This season Orr bolted to the Chicago Black Hawks and the Bruins hiked their ticket prices, coincidental developments that resulted in an informal fan boycott of the Boston Garden. Nor did it help at the gate that Don Cherry, the NHL's Coach of the Year last season, was pushing ahead with his efforts to transform the Bruins, so shamefully talented in the Orr-Esposito era, into a disciplined, hard-checking bunch relying on balance instead of brilliance. It sounds rather dull, except that the Bruins, remarkably enough, have rebuilt without suffering the usual period of defeat.
To pull this off, quite a few pieces had to fall into place at once. Out of Esposito's shadow darted Gregg Sheppard, a 5'8" center whose Bobby Clarke-style scrappiness characterizes the new Bruin look. Back from the WHA came erstwhile Boston Goalie Gerry Cheevers, a thoroughbred owner of growing repute—his colt Royal Ski looms large in any early reckoning of the 1977 Kentucky Derby (page 34)—who teams with Gilles Gilbert to form the game's best goaltending combination. And out of the clutches of the properly embarrassed Rangers came Ratelle, who scores goals, forechecks diligently and gets off passes as straight and true as the part in his well-barbered hair. At 36, the lean Ratelle plays as though he were years younger, the payoff for all those evenings he quietly retired to his hotel room to watch the 11 o'clock news, weather and sports.
But above all, the Bruins have benefited from the arrival of Park, who has helped the team alter its style largely by amending his own. With the Rangers, Park was a do-it-all defenseman who was frequently called upon to play tough guy and execute end-to-end rushes. When Park joined the Bruins, Cherry urged him to concentrate more on straight defense. Cherry is positively ecstatic when he says today, "Brad's not as flashy as he used to be, but he's a better player. If you forget about Orr, there's no defenseman I'd rather have." And with Orr's knee still acting up—he has played just two games for the Black Hawks in a month—it is looking more and more as though you can indeed forget about him.
For his part, Park professes to be unconcerned that even after last week's offensive surge against Pittsburgh and Vancouver he has scored just five goals this season, a modest total for somebody who had 25 goals one year for the Rangers. Agreeing with Cherry that his new role has made him more proficient, he says, "Sure, I like to score goals. But, heck, I got one in practice yesterday."
On the ice Park is an intense, even fiery performer, but away from the rink he comes across as temperate and soft-spoken, a smile usually creasing roundish features that have prompted writers in 18 NHL cities to describe him as "moon-faced."
Of course, one reason for his smile is his emancipation from New York, where he came to be haunted, ironically, by the specter of the Boston Bruins. Park joined the Rangers in 1968 at the age of 20, and his poise and aggressiveness made him an immediate favorite in New York. In 1970 he married his first cousin, Gerry George (thus, father-in-law Bob George is also his uncle). In 1972 the WHA beckoned and when the Ranger brass broke out the checkbook to keep the club intact. Park profited with a $200,000-a-year contract that made him, briefly, the highest-paid player in the NHL. Eventually he was named team captain. Everything should have been beautiful for Brad Park.
One problem, though, was that New York writers kept comparing Park to Orr, then as now the man against whom all defensemen—indeed, all hockey players—are measured. The Ranger-Bruin rivalry was already a hot one and such comparisons heated it up all the more. The whole business was unfortunate. The Ranger star was a fine all-round defense-man, but there was only one Orr, something that Park has always been the first to admit.
"Bobby's the greatest hockey player I've ever seen," Park says. "I never said I was as good as he was, others did. But people kept saying, 'Hey, Park, who you kidding? You're no Bobby Orr.' And I've got to admit that I have a lot of confidence and enjoy a challenge. I was influenced by Bobby. Sometimes I'd find myself trying to rush end-to-end like he did, and I'd have to remind myself to stop it."