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One by one, the Philadelphia Flyers skated past to pay their respects to Terence Joseph James O'Reilly of the Boston Bruins. This ritual was aimed, as always, at rearranging O'Reilly's face. Mel Bridgman, a bristly forward, led the procession of hit men as the Flyers and Bruins squared off last week at the Boston Garden in the first game of their Stanley Cup semifinal playoff, a series the Bruins led two games to one at week's end. Like his teammates, Bridgman remembers all too well that it was only a year ago that O'Reilly and the Bruins embarrassed the Flyers by wiping them out of the semifinals in four straight games.
As they lined up for the opening face-off, Bridgman stationed himself at left wing, opposite Right Wing O'Reilly. In hockey, unlike basketball, players do not greet their opponents with handshakes or hugs or pats on the rear. Just glares. Seeking an early edge, Bridgman forcefully planted the blade of his stick atop O'Reilly's. O'Reilly yanked his stick away and reversed the procedure. They glared at each other more ferociously, then chased after the puck. Bridgman promptly jostled O'Reilly against the boards to set the theme for Game 1. Defenseman Jimmy Watson hit O'Reilly again to make sure he got the idea.
O'Reilly did. Nine minutes into the game, hoping to stir his teammates from their lethargy, O'Reilly slammed into Bridgman. Offended, Bridgman whipped off his gloves and put up his fists. O'Reilly did the same. They grappled quickly, with O'Reilly trying unsuccessfully to rip off Bridgman's helmet, the better to hit him in the head. ("I worry that someday I'll break a hand on some guy's helmet," O'Reilly says.) Bridgman scored with a hard left. If O'Reilly's face is a map of Ireland, as some say, the punch landed roughly in the area of Galway Bay. The officials pried the players apart while O'Reilly was countering with solid lefts.
The hostilities continued until early in the third period when O'Reilly suddenly encountered a fresh opponent in Defenseman Rick Lapointe. Following a free-swinging melee around Philadelphia Goaltender Bernie Parent, Lapointe challenged O'Reilly to put up or shut up. O'Reilly chose to put up, as always, and after ducking Lapointe's wild first swing, proceeded to pummel the young Flyer with a barrage of punches.
It is important to note that these activities were not as spontaneous as they may have seemed. Although the Bruins won 3-2 on a goal by Rick Middleton in the second minute of sudden-death overtime, Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero was convinced the Flyers lost because they were unable to neutralize O'Reilly's aggressiveness in the corners and in front of Parent. "I wonder if even the Bruins realize how good O'Reilly really is," Shero said. "I know that the rest of the world doesn't understand that O'Reilly is one of the best players in the world. He's much like Bobby Clarke in that he never stops giving second effort. Sometime soon—like right now—I've got to come up with a line that can handle O'Reilly. A line, I said, not just one player."
Shero considered the problem and shook his head. In the quarterfinals against Buffalo, the Flyers had concentrated on containing Sabre Center Gilbert Perreault, the NHL's flashiest skater. And now they were worried about a skater named O'Reilly, who had once received a pair of double-runners as a Christmas present from Bobby Orr. "On skates," Orr said at the time, "Terry is about as smooth as a stucco bathtub."
"Aw, skating is far overrated in hockey today," Shero said. "For all Perreault's great skating ability, what does he ever accomplish? Now take O'Reilly. Sure, he's an awkward skater. Just like Clarke, who can't skate either. But O'Reilly, like Clarke, always arrives at his destination on time—and with a bang."
For that reason, and also because of his name, Terry O'Reilly is easily the most popular hockey player in Boston. To the shot-and-a-beer lunch-pail crowd, he is that nice O'Reilly lad, the hod carrier who lives on the top floor of the three-decker on the corner of L Street and Seventh in Southie—where they have open house every Saint Paddy's Day. To the kids playing street hockey in Charlestown and Maiden, O'Reilly is "Taz"—the Tasmanian Devil, the whirlwind character from the Saturday morning TV cartoons. To Boston General Manager Harry Sinden, he is an income producer, well worth his $100,000 annual salary. "In Boston, Montreal, Toronto—in cities all over the league—thousands of people will pay money to watch Terry O'Reilly play hockey," Sinden says. "Why? He's fun to watch and he works so hard."
This season the 26-year-old O'Reilly became only the second player in NHL history to lead his team in both scoring (90 points on 29 goals and 61 assists) and penalty minutes (211). It hadn't come easily: when O'Reilly joined the Bruins in 1972 after scoring only nine goals in the minor leagues the previous season, the general reaction was that the Bruins had hired another goon. "When I first saw him," Shero recalls, "I thought he was a nothing as a player." In his first season with Boston, O'Reilly scored only five goals—a couple of them actually were shots by Boston teammates that ricocheted into the net off his body—but won a regular job because of his willingness to bang bodies in the corners and play policeman.
"My problem was that I couldn't skate very well," O'Reilly says. "As a kid I played goalie for four years and didn't skate as much as the other players. After my first year in Boston, I skated for three hours each day all summer. I'm still not very graceful and my balance isn't great, but I get there."