Forty-eight games do not a season make, but if the NHL awards dinner had been held during last weekend's All-Star break instead of after the Stanley Cup finals, the Boston Bruins would have hauled home a pantry-load of silver. The surprising Bruins would have had the best record in the league (27-16-5), their goaltending duo of Andy Moog and Reggie Lemelin would have won the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals (2.90 per game), and the best defenseman in the NHL, Bruins captain Ray Bourque, would have been handed the Norris Trophy.
The MVP? Well, with all due respect to Wayne Gretzky of the L.A. Kings and Pat LaFontaine of the New York Islanders, hockey is as much about stopping goals as scoring them, and a defenseman has not won this award (the Hart Trophy) since 1972, the year that Bobby Orr led Boston to its most recent Stanley Cup. Bourque, who has been the Bruins' horse, is a worthy candidate. At the All-Star break, he led NHL defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 43 assists, had an average of 30 minutes of ice time a game, was among the league's plus-minus leaders with a +23 and had covered the defensive zone like some sort of fiery rash.
"I've never seen a better all-around player than Ray," says Moog, who has played with both Gretzky and Paul Coffey, the record-holder for goals by a defenseman, with 48. "Paul could carry a game, but Ray can carry a game and never touch the puck, like when he's killing a penalty. Even considering Wayne. Ray's the most complete player in the game."
Early in the season Boston's rookie coach Mike Milbury expressed similar sentiments—only stronger. " Ray Bourque is the best player in hockey right now," said Milbury. "Better than Gretzky, better than [Mario] Lemieux, better than anyone."
Nobody laughed. Bourque has given Milbury no cause to back off from that statement, although in the interest of not wearing him into the ground, Milbury has cut Bourque's ice time from the 35 to 40 minutes a game he was playing in October and November to a more reasonable 25 to 28 minutes. Bourque, who had scored only five goals in the first 39 games of the season, responded with eight in his next eight games, a stretch in which the Bruins went 6-1-1 to overtake the Buffalo Sabres in the Adams Division and move into first place in the overall standings. What else could Milbury request of Bourque, he was recently asked. "Just a Stanley Cup," he replied.
Were it not for coach Al Arbour's remarkable reconstruction of the Islanders, Milbury, who spent slightly more than 11 seasons, from 1975-76 to '86-87, with the Bruins as a defenseman, would make a good choice for first-half Coach of the Year. Milbury, 37, has breathed new life into a team that was 18-20-10 after 48 games a year ago and was dispatched in five games in last spring's playoffs by its nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens, who have won 21 of 24 playoff series from Boston since the teams first met in postseason play 61 years ago.
Unorthodox and unaffected, Milbury, a Colgate graduate, is an intriguing combination of intellect and wild-eyed passion. In his playing days he once climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden and pounded a spectator with a shoe. Yet he was respected enough for his smarts that he was elected the Bruins' player representative and was one of the first members of the players' union who had the moxie and the insight to challenge the leadership of NHL Players Association executive director Alan Eagleson, an agent whose own interests have often been at odds with the concerns of the NHLPA.
Milbury has heaved a few ancient hockey coaching traditions out the window. He tries, for instance, to give the Bruins one full day off a week, something that would have been anathema to his predecessors. "I do it as much for me as for the players," he says. On at least one occasion this season, feeling that his players had stopped listening to him, he removed himself from behind the bench and watched the third period from the press box.
Milbury will call his one timeout at almost any time during a game, eschewing the theory that it is best saved for the final minute, when a coach might want to give his key players a rest. Last week in Hartford, for instance, Boston led 3-0 in the second period, the Whalers scored, and Milbury, sensing a momentum switch, called time. "I will do some weird things," says Milbury. Face it, it's tough not to like a hockey coach who takes his family to New Hampshire to ski during the All-Star break.
Before taking over in Boston, Milbury, who spent the last two years as coach and general manager of the Maine Mariners of the American Hockey League, had a good handle on the Bruins' three primary sources of woe: their play at home, their character and their power play. To correct the first two weaknesses, Milbury had to do a selling job. Solving the power-play problem called for a tactical change.