Hockey's Wildest Season – The Changing of the Guard in the NHL, 1969-1970 (by John G. Robertson)

Hockey’s Wildest Season is an examination of the thoroughly crazy 1969-70 NHL season—one that featured amazingly close playoff races in both the...
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  1. John Robertson Registered User

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    Book Title: Hockey’s Wildest Season: The Changing of the Guard in the NHL, 1969-1970

    Author
    : John G. Robertson

    Publisher: McFarland: Hockey’s Wildest Season – McFarland

    Author’s Information

    John G. Robertson is a 57-year-old sports history author who lives in Cambridge, Ontario. He has been researching and writing selected histories of various sports since the age of 19. Hockey’s Wildest Season is his second book about hockey history. (Robertson’s first hockey book was Too Many Men on the Ice: The 1978-79 Boston Bruins and the Most Famous Penalty in Hockey History; it was also published by McFarland, in 2018.) Other books include several scholarly works on both baseball and boxing history.

    About Hockey’s Wildest Season

    Hockey’s Wildest Season is an examination of the thoroughly crazy 1969-70 NHL season—one that featured amazingly close playoff races in both the East and West divisions that were not decided until the final Sunday of the regular season. It also looks at all aspects of that season: the decline of the traditional NHL powerhouses (Montreal and Toronto) and the emergence of the former have-not clubs (Boston, Chicago and New York); the awful Ted Green-Wayne Maki stick-swinging incident in the preseason; several amusing anecdotes, such as the Rolling Stones nearly causing an L.A. Kings home game to be forfeited; and two postseason tragedies (the sudden deaths of Michel Briere and Terry Sawchuk). Hockey’s Wildest Season also chronicles how the 1969-70 regular season climaxed with two crazy, farcical games that prompted the NHL to rewrite its flawed tiebreaker rules, and the memorable Stanley Cup playoffs culminating in Bobby Orr’s iconic Stanley Cup-winning goal at Boston Garden on May 10.

    Excerpt of Hockey’s Wildest Season (from Chapter #30)

    Entering their much-anticipated 1970 semifinal, there was not much to choose from between the Bruins and Black Hawks. In their eight regular-season meetings, Boston and Chicago had battled each other to the equivalent of a stalemate. The Bruins and Hawks each won three times, with two other games ending in ties. Boston had outscored Chicago 21-19 in those games. Of course, both clubs had ended the regular season with 99 points. Tony Esposito had recorded two of his 15 shutouts versus Boston, but the Bruins had also shut out the Black Hawks twice. As in the previous two years in the post-expansion era, many fans and hockey writers considered the series to decide the East Division champion to be the de facto Stanley Cup final regardless of which team emerged as the West’s winner. Everything pointed to an evenly matched Bruins-Black Hawks series. Instead, it proved to be shockingly one-sided.
    “If you had told me before the series started that we would take [Chicago] in four straight games, I would have laughed in your face,” Boston assistant captain Johnny Bucyk later recalled in his autobiography. “When it was all over, I was shocked—but not as much as the Black Hawks.” Chicago came into the series riding a six-game winning streak that dated back to the hectic and crazy final weekend of the regular season.
    Game #1 occurred on Sunday, April 19 at Chicago Stadium. It was scheduled for the afternoon to accommodate the CBS NHL Game of the Week time slot. Boston won comfortably, 6-3. Bobby Orr, who contributed two assists, put on a show defensively. On three separate occasions he blocked shots that seemed headed for an unguarded Bruins’ net. However, the offensive damage was mostly done by Phil Esposito who delighted in scoring three times on his younger sibling. The feat was recognized in bold letters atop the Montreal Gazette’s sports page: “Boston’s Phil Wins Esposito Battle.”
    Pat Curran of the Gazette was thoroughly impressed by the visitors’ performance. “Neither brotherly love, nor respect for the [regular-season] champions, nor appreciation for the fans who paid for the show deterred the Boston Bruins in their convincing 6-3 upset of the Black Hawks,” he wrote. “Boston simply took the play away from Chicago from the start. Before it was over, Phil Esposito had scored this third playoff hat-trick, with other goals going to Johnny Bucyk, Ken Hodge, and John (Cowboy) McKenzie.”
    The elder Esposito brother showed little compassion for Tony. “It’s hardly a family matter when there’s five-grand on the line,” Phil noted, citing the difference in playoff money awarded to players on a Stanley Cup-winning team and a losing divisional finalist. He seemed annoyed at the very idea of taking it easy on his brother.
    John McKenzie got into a scuffle with a couple of belligerent Black Hawk fans near the end of the game who had called the Bruins “a bunch of stupid bums.” McKenzie fired back, “Any guy who pays $25 for two seats in this dump can’t be too smart, either.”
    Despite Chicago carrying the play for much of the first period, Boston had a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Bruins upped it to a 3-0 advantage 5:11 into the second period. Chicago never got closer than a two-goal deficit. Both teams scored twice on the power play. Boston coach Harry Sinden noted, “We had a good first period and didn’t get behind the eight-ball. We had some great goalkeeping [from Gerry Cheevers] and no team can win a Stanley Cup without it.” Cheevers handled 32 of the 35 Black Hawk shots that came his way, but even he acknowledged he had received some timely and conspicuous extra help, calling Bobby Orr’s block of a Bobby Hull blast with his chest “the save of the day.”
    Every Bruin seemed to have a big afternoon. Pesky Derek Sanderson, a faceoff specialist and amateur statistician, lost just two draws the entire game and won 16—by his reckoning, at least.
    When asked if he thought the Black Hawks were “stale” because they had not played a game in a week, Boston coach Harry Sinden guffawed. “Stale? If we had lost, could I say they were stale? Yeah, I guess they were stale.”

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited by moderator Theokritos: Mar 8, 2021
  2. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Thanks for joining us! Judging by what you have written in the presentation, am I right to assume you are fond of the Boston Bruins?
     
  3. John Robertson Registered User

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    You would be correct. I might be the only person alive who has researched every Boston Bruins game--and I mean every regular-season and playoff game--since the team's inception in 1924. I began doing that in 1983 by visiting numerous libraries and going through vast amounts newspaper microfilms rolls. I started compiling game results for every season. This hobby expanded to compiling individual statistics for each player. As I stated in my previous hockey book, I don't know why I started following the Boston Bruins--I just did. My personal stats collection has been very helpful in my writing about the team.
     
  4. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    That's impressive.

    So your Bruins background is why you picked the 1969-1970 season. A very reasonable choice, considering it was the first Stanley Cup win by Boston with Orr and Esposito, the first trophy since 1941 and the first appearance in the finals since 1958. And of course, Bobby Orr won the Art Ross Trophy as a defenceman, a complete novelty. However, to some degree the "Big Bad Bruins" style had already emerged earlier. The year before, Phil Esposito had topped the scoring list by a wide margin. How would you describe the development of the Boston Bruins since the late 1960s, and, in particular, what changed from 1968-69 to 1969-70 that made Bobby Orr go from #23 in the scoring race to #1?
     
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  5. John Robertson Registered User

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    I think Bobby Orr benefited from maturity in 1969-70. By the end of the season he was 22 years old. When he first came into the NHL at age 18, I think he felt he had to carry the whole team because the Bruins were not very good in 1966-67. When the pieces for the Stanley Cup team started to be assembled, Orr learned that he didn't have to win games all by himself. He was content to be part of his team rather than be a one-man team. With Esposito, Hodge, Stanfield, Bucyk, Cashman, McKenzie and the rest, the Bruins' opponents could no longer just focus on shutting Orr down. This gave Orr more operating room and thus more chances to accrue goals and assists. During the 1970 Cup finals, Scotty Bowman (the coach of St. Louis) tried to shadow Orr in the first two games--and the overall plan failed badly. Other Bruins (such as Johnny Bucyk) had big games.
     
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  6. Habsfan18 Collector/Historical Research

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    I’ve had this pre-ordered on amazon for a few now. Release date was listed as earlier in February but my copy still hasn’t shipped yet. Looking forward it receiving it eventually and giving it a read.
     
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  7. John Robertson Registered User

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    Terrific! That's great to hear. I hope you enjoy it--as much as a Habs fans could possibly enjoy reading about the one season in 46 years when Montreal missed the playoffs. There was a February 16 release date listed on Amazon. I don't know where they got that date from. I did not get my author's allotment of copies until late February.
     
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  8. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    How big do you think was the impact that Harry Sinden had? One the one hand, he's obviously the coach under whose auspices that team came together and won that 1970 Stanley Cup. On the other hand, I've heard sceptics say that he was just the lucky guy who happened to be there when all the pieces were falling in place. Did he have a tangible influence on the way the Bruins played or did the team just develop naturally around Orr with his unique gifts?
     
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  9. John Robertson Registered User

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    Say what you want about Harry Sinden, but I suspect Sinden kept Boston focused and grounded in this crucial season. Clearly the Bruins were loaded with talent and would have been a force in the NHL regardless of who coached them in the early 1970s. Still, the Bruins did not have any long slumps during the season--and considering how close the East Division standings were in 1969-70, that was a good thing. I suppose Sinden's value as a coach can be measured when he wasn't there. People were shocked when he walked away from the team over a relatively small amount of money about a week after the season ended. Boston, of course, should have romped to the Stanley Cup in 1970-71 too--but Sinden wasn't there to guide them. When asked why Boston did not win more than two Stanley Cups in their heyday, Phil Esposito has said that the players became too cocky and too undisciplined. That did not happen in 1969-70 with Sinden behind the bench.
     
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  10. rfournier103 There Is No Substitute For Victory. Sponsor

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    Thank you for signing up for this forum, @John Robertson. As a lifelong Bruins fan and history buff, I will enjoy your work. Looking forward to it.

    One of the admins here is also a huge Bruins aficionado, and you two would have quite a conversation. Reach out to @Fenway when you have the chance. You won’t be disappointed. He’s a wealth of hockey information, especially about the Bruins.
     
  11. John Robertson Registered User

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    Thanks for the welcome and the kind words. As was mentioned in my author's information at the top of this thread, I have written one other book about the Bruins. It's title is Too Many Men on the Ice: The 1978-79 Boston Bruins and the Most Famous Penalty in Hockey History. It's gotten very good reviews. (I think it's pretty good too!) You might want to check it out.
     
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  12. rfournier103 There Is No Substitute For Victory. Sponsor

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    I’ll be sure to! I was only 4 when too many men happened, but it still pains me as a fan!

    That game is, in my opinion, the greatest game in the greatest series in NHL history. I detest the result, but for hockey drama it is unrivaled. It’s the third worst loss in Boston sports history after Super Bowl XLII and Game 6 of the ‘86 World Series.

    I’m looking forward to reading your books. Please don’t be a stranger here.
     
  13. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    John, in your presentation you mention just how close it was between Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks in the regular season. Unlike the Bruins, Chicago had a forgettable 68-69 season. The 69-70 season saw a resurgance. What happened there?
     
  14. stephenlaroche Registered User

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    Not to step on John's toes, but two words: Tony, and Esposito... (well, and the arrival of Bill White, Lou Angotti, Cliff Koroll, Gerry Pinder, and Keith Magnuson helped).
     
  15. John Robertson Registered User

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    Yes, Tony Esposito was a big factor--a huge factor, actually. He had 15 shutouts--a fantastic total. The Hawks also seemed to put more emphasis on team defense after Esposito started playing regularly in goal. Chicago started poorly in 1969-70, however. Given how disappointing the 1968-69 season was in Chicago, coach Billy Reay seemed likely to be fired. I would agree that Phil's little brother was the main reason for the turnaround. He was chosen as one of the East's two goalies in the All-Star Game. (That was almost unheard of at the time for a rookie goalie.) I would include Bill White--a late-season acquisition from the L.A. Kings--as a big reason too. The Hawks went on a real tear after they got him playing defense. White was very happy to be leaving L.A.--a truly terrible team. Rookie Keith Magnuson was an unexpected star for Chicago. He earned a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated in April 1970. He was a strong defensive-oriented defenseman. He didn't score a goal all season until the semifinal round versus Boston. As Johnny Bucyk said, no one expected Boston to oust Chicago in a sweep. On paper at least, the two teams seemed well matched.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2021
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  16. vikash1987 Registered User

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    What a great subject for a book! I look forward to ordering a copy. I'm sure that this was a fun one to research, and that it's packed with interesting facts and anecdotes. Out of curiosity, what were your main archival sources for material? I'm assuming back issues of newspapers and magazines were big---did you happen to do any player interviews, or go back and watch old TV footage of interviews, broadcast commentaries, etc. from '69-'70?

    On a side note: it's a shame that those CBS NHL Game of the Week broadcasts weren't all preserved for posterity. As I've mentioned in this Forum before, Dan Kelly was before my time, but I could listen to his voice doing play-by-play for hours on end! (But at least all those gorgeous color clips of Bobby Orr and the Bruins from that season were preserved!)
     
  17. John Robertson Registered User

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    Thanks for the comment. Yes, it was an interesting subject to pursue. I have always been fascinated with that season because (a) I'm a Bruins fan; (b) it's the first NHL season I can truly remember watching as a child; (c) and the strange way the regular season ended. As for sources, I use many types. Basically, if I found something somewhere in print or on video that I that would help the narrative, I used it. I love sifting through newspaper archives, so I used many of them from Google News Archive. The Montreal Gazette and the two Pittsburgh dailies were particularly fruitful. I used quite a few books too--including some obscure biographies. A helpful fellow who runs a website dedicated to the Oakland/California Seals kindly sent me numerous newspaper clippings from the San Mateo Times about the 1969-70 Oakland Seals.

    Yes, it's a horrible shame that many old hockey games and other sports events were erased from history. Nobody thought they had much value at the time. I am currently doing research for a baseball book on the 1972 World Series. Complete games from TV are almost impossible to find. I am largely relying on radio broadcasts to fill in the gaps. The NHL of that era was no better at preserving videos from the early 1970s.
     
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  18. rfournier103 There Is No Substitute For Victory. Sponsor

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    The thing I love most about the NFL is NFL Films. I’m sure you know that they have every play from every game going all the way back to the 1960s.

    That the NHL doesn’t have anything similar is a crime. There should be an effort to at least preserve playoff games and important milestones. An effort to collect and preserve film featuring important players and games from the past should be undertaken as well to prevent it from being lost.

    If the NHL ever wants to be relevant in the United States, it should try to be more like the NFL instead of trying to copy the NBA. Launching an “NHL Films” would be a great place to start.
     
  19. vikash1987 Registered User

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    Hi John: just sent you a private message.
     
  20. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    @John Robertson: In your presentation you mention the decline of the traditional powerhouses Montreal and Toronto. By 1969, the Leafs had been declining for a few years, but the Canadiens dropped like a stone from 1968-69 to 1969-70 – even though the team and staff remained pretty much the same. Could you please expand a little bit on that?
     
  21. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Looks like it should be available now:

     
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  22. John Robertson Registered User

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    During the 1969-70 regular season , Montreal did not seem to be the reliable Canadiens of even the previous year. They let an astonishing number of games get away from them in the third period. Wins turned into ties. Ties turned into losses. They lost their aura somewhere along the line. Had they done anything positive in their last two games versus Chicago in the final weekend, they would have made the playoffs. Interestingly, Scotty Bowman (who was coaching St. Louis) picked the Habs as the Stanley Cup favorites with about 10 days left in the regular season--based on reputation alone. Montreal had injuries, of course. Serge Savard broke his leg. John Ferguson was hurt. Ralph Backstrom had been injured too. I think Montreal just became too complacent. That lasted for all of one season.
     
  23. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    That's remarkable.

    Sounds plausible. Even if we factor in a few injuries, there is no reason a team with that roster should have missed the playoffs. On paper, Canadiens did indeed look like the favorite to win it all. I guess winning the Cup four times in five years can do that to one's mentality. Do you happen to know whether specific players were particularly singled out for criticism? I mean, there must have been a lot of criticism in Montreal, righ?
     
  24. John Robertson Registered User

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    You have to remember in 1969-70 that Montreal finished with 92 points in a 76-game season and somehow missed the playoffs. At the time, that was easily the highest point total ever accrued by a team that missed the playoffs--so there wasn't anything glaringly wrong with Montreal that year. (Boston and Chicago tied for the Division lead with 99 points, so Montreal was only seven points out of first place!) I think the team was criticized by its fans for allowing Gump Worsley to get away. He wasn't getting much work--and he didn't like coach Claude Ruel--so he basically quit around New Year's Day 1970. He was coaxed out of retirement by the Minnesota North Stars and played well for them. I think there were a lot of people in Montreal who think that if Worsley had played more often in goal for Montreal than Phil Myre, Montreal might have made the playoffs.
     
  25. Staniowski Registered User

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    Yes.....they were, no doubt, one of the best teams ever to miss the playoffs.
     

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