When Rick Middleton's No. 16 went up to the Garden rafters on November 29, 2018, it was the first time a Bruins' jersey had been retired in 14 years.
That begged one question. What took them so long?
Middleton ranks fourth on the Bruins' all-time scoring list, behind only Ray Bourque, Johnny Bucyk and Phil Esposito and one place ahead of Bobby Orr. That's some rarefied air that Middleton — No. 9 on our greatest-Bruins-besides-Bobby list — breathes in there. And while there's a worthy debate as to whether he could or should go into the Hockey Hall of Fame — counting his two seasons with the Rangers, he finished just 12 points shy of 1,000 — there's little doubt he belongs in the Bruins' pantheon.
Middleton arrived in Boston by way of one of the most underrated trades in league history. Early in the 1975-76 season, GM Harry Sinden had traded Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle (plus NHL short-timer Joe Zanussi), credited with keeping the B's among the NHL's elite into the next decade. But the one he made the following May was a true heist.
Sinden gave the Rangers Esposito's old linemate in Boston, Ken Hodge, and took on a talented kid who was known to have some defensive deficiencies in Middleton.
A season and change later, Hodge was out of the league while Middleton would play 881 games for the B's, average better than a point a game (402-496-898) and notch an even 100 points in 111 playoff games. He even overhauled his reputation as an offense-only skater.
When arrived in Boston, the right wing had some work to do on his all-around game.
* At the end of the year,” cracked his coach at the time, Don Cherry, on the night of Middleton's retirement ceremony, * we had to introduce him to our goalie.”
But he not only made himself a more well rounded player, but one who would garner votes for the Selke Trophy and, on the night of his number retirement, he still held the club record for shorthanded goals with 25, a record held for 30 years until Brad Marchand finally set a new one, which currently stands at 27.
While he filled some cracks in his game, Middleton was still, first and foremost, a scorer. From 1979-80 to 1983-84, Middleton registered five straight 40-goal seasons (with a 51-goal season in 1981-82 while playing with centerman Barry Pederson) and had two 100-point seasons in that span. He enjoyed his best payoff season in '82-83, when he notched 11-22-33 totals in 17 playoff games before the B's bowed out to the New York Islanders in the conference finals.
According to hockey-reference.com, Middleton is ranked sixth in shooting percentage at 19.72% and tops among players who played 1,000 games. Part of the reason was that he was often shooting into an empty net. Not blessed with a booming shot, Middleton was a sublime one-on-one player who could dipsy-do his way around a defender and then pretzel the goaltender before calmly slipping home the puck, leaving the wreckage in his wake. There never was a more appropriate nickname than his, * Nifty.”
Middleton is one of just a couple Bruins on this list who never won a Stanley Cup, but he got a nice consolation prize in his final season with the B's.
Perhaps no other Bruin in history had suffered more at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. His teams lost three straight seasons to the Habs in the late '70s — twice in the Finals and another time in the heartbreaking too-many-men game in '79 — and then lost four straight first round series to the Habs in the mid '80s, winning just two games in those four series.
But in 1988, in his final season with the Bruins and with the club poised for another upturn, the B's snapped the 45-year playoff curse against the Canadiens, winning the best-of-seven divisional final series in five games, and winning it in the Montreal Forum, no less.
The B's would lose to another great dynasty team, the Edmonton Oilers, in the Cup final, but the win over Montreal was a pretty good parting gift for a career that deserved one.