The great ones often have nicknames, apt little catchphrases that suggest a special skill or style. Bernie Geoffrion had a thunderous slap shot, so he became Boom-Boom. For getting up and down the ice but fast, Maurice Richard probably had no peer, thus The Rocket. Bobby Hull had blond locks and skated like the wind, ergo The Golden Jet. To watch Montreal's Guy Lafleur is to behold a thing of beauty, so, translating his surname, he's The Flower.
And then there's Rick Middleton. His Boston Bruin teammates call him Nifty. Why? Forward Keith Crowder answers, "Just watch him."
Defenseman Brad Park, a five-time All-Star who is now in his 14th NHL season, says, "I've seen them all, and Nifty's the best one-on-one player in hockey. Take anyone in the league, give Nifty the puck, and 90% of the time he'll turn the other guy inside out."
Combining superb quickness and stickhandling with unusual balance and instinct, Middleton, a forward, not only is one of the league's most stylish players, but also is emerging, in his seventh season, as a scorer. Last year he had a team-high 92 points on 40 goals and 52 assists. With two weeks remaining this season, Middleton had already surpassed those totals. After the Bruins' 4-3 victory over Calgary on Saturday, he had a career-high 42 goals and 55 assists, tying him for eighth in the league in scoring.
Middleton logs more ice time than any Bruin except defense-men Park and Ray Bourque. He works the power play, kills penalties and protects late leads. The opposition keys on Middleton, too, because he's Boston's only genuine threat to "create" a goal: for the most part the other Bruins qualify as muckers, members of the so-called Lunchpail A.C., who score on goal-mouth tip-ins, rebounds or unintentional deflections.
" Boston's what you'd call a backward team, the only one in the league." says one NHL coach. "Except for Middleton, the Bruins get almost no offense from their forwards. Except for Middleton, the Bruins get their offense from the defense. It should be the other way around."
Middleton doesn't stand out on the ice, at least not right away. He doesn't have the breakaway speed of Lafleur, Buffalo's Gilbert Perreault or Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne. Nor does he have the quick, no-look release of the Islanders' Mike Bossy. Instead, he weaves effortlessly, economically about the ice. It's those tiny moves that set Middleton apart. A leg fake here, a shoulder dip there, maybe even the twitch of an eyelid, and suddenly Nifty has the puck and is off.
"It's no great secret," Middleton says. "You don't have to fly up and down the rink to be effective. You just go with the flow, wait for an opening and then you pounce." Of course, Middleton is fully capable of making an opening or two himself. Jim Craig, the U.S. Olympic hero who's now Boston's No. 3 goal-tender, says that of all the scorers he has faced, Middleton's the most talented at giving the puck, taking it away and then sliding it into the net—right between the goalie's legs.
To get to the bottom of Middleton's success, one must search all the way down to his skates. The blades on most players' skates are fastened to the boot with steel rivets. Because the shifty Middleton seems to skate on his ankles half the time, his blades are attached with more durable copper studs. Bruin Trainer Dan Canney says that without the copper studs Middleton would "be popping his skates off all night." In his 18 years on the job, Canney has met only one other player who required copper studs. Bobby Orr.
At times Middleton can be simply spectacular. His sliding-face-down-by-the-goal-mouth-arms-fully-extended-goal-from-an-impossible-angle during the Stanley Cup playoffs two seasons back would make the alltime NHL highlight film. And then there was the score against Toronto earlier that same year. Middleton was on a breakaway, at midice on the right side. A step behind, angling in on him from the left, was Lanny McDonald, then of the Maple Leafs. At the blue line McDonald realized he couldn't get close enough to Middleton to do any formal checking, so he dived face down across Middleton's path. Just a wink before McDonald touched ice, Middleton, who was ripping along at about 25 mph, backhanded the puck under McDonald's belly. An instant later he hurtled over McDonald, gathered in the sliding puck and snapped a wrist shot past Goaltender Mike Palmateer.