‘Big, Bad, & Bobby’: How Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito helped break Stanley Cup drought for Bruins in 1970

On Sunday night, the NHL Network will debut “The 1970 Boston Bruins: Big, Bad, & Bobby” about the 1969-70 Boston Bruins and their pursuit of their first Stanley Cup in 29 years. The documentary explains how the team was constructed and the impact of players like Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito had on the franchise.

Boston has grown accustomed to winning professional sports championships over the past two decades. In the 21st century, there have been 12 championships in the city among the Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots. However, Boston wasn’t always known as a town that wins championships on a frequent basis.

The Bruins, who are one of the “Original Six” NHL teams, had a large amount of success in their early years as they raised Lord Stanley’s Cup in 1929, 1939 and 1941. Then the Bruins went on a drought that included some less-than-stellar seasons in the 1960s. 

After losing in the Semifinals to the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1958-59 season, Boston would go on to miss the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons. During that time, the Bruins finished at least six games under .500 in each of those seasons and won 18 games or fewer in five of those seasons.

The future Stanley Cup champion Bruins got their franchise cornerstone in 1966 when 18-year old phenom Bobby Orr arrived in Boston and was viewed as a savior of sorts after spending four years with the team’s junior hockey affiliate Oshawa Generals. 

“I specifically remember becoming aware of the Bruins when my father and uncles were talking. He’s coming. The savior is coming,” actor and Boston native Denis Leary said. “As a kid, you’re picking up this name … Bobby, Bobby, Bobby Orr.”

Orr immediately made an impact throughout the 1966-67 season and registered 41 points (13 goals & 28 assists). During his first year in the league, Orr won the Calder Trophy, which is annually awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.

“I don’t know if he felt pressure,” Bruins teammate Johnny Bucyk said about Orr. “But I just loved watching him. He could skate like the wind.”

Orr’s explosiveness on the ice was unmistakable. The Bruins defenseman could race end-to-end in the blink of an eye and produce highlight-reel plays. 

However, Orr needed some help in order for the Bruins to make a move in the standings.

“There was a sense at the end of that season that they were going in the right direction,” author and Danvers, Mass. native Thomas J. Whalen said. “You could tell objectively that the Bruins weren’t going to be cellar dwellers much longer.”

In May 1967, the Bruins acquired the trio of Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Fred Stanfield in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. The move instantly transformed the Bruins into a contender and would showcase Orr and Esposito as the dynamic duo that would lead Boston to new glory days.

During his first season in Boston, Esposito immediately became an offensive force on the ice. He gave the Bruins the dynamic forward that they had been missing. Esposito recorded a new career-high with 84 points (35 goals and 49 assists) during the 1967-68 season and helped lead the Bruins to a 37-27-10 record and 84 standings points, which vaulted the team back into the postseason.

The “Big Bad Bruins,” which was a nickname that the team earned due to their physicality, were not afraid to mix it up with the opposition. They had a different edge to them than what they had in the past and defended each other.

“You don’t always like the guy you’re playing with,” Esposito said. “But when you’re on the ice, I don’t give a crap. He’s your teammate, you’ve got to like him. You’ve got to stick up for him.”

However, the playoffs didn’t exactly go as the Bruins hoped during the 1967-68 season. Boston was swept by the Montreal Canadiens in four games in the Quarterfinals. 

While getting swept wasn’t the ideal scenario, Esposito was certain that better times were ahead.

“I remember coming back from Montreal. I remember the airport and I was getting a drink at the fountain and [coach] Harry [Sinden] was standing there. I said to Harry: ‘we’re going to win the Stanley Cup’ in three years.'”

After winning their first playoff series in 11 seasons in the 1968-69 Quarterfinals, the 1969-70 season was where the Bruins were going to make their mark.

The Bruins came out of the gate strong as they won their first seven games and looked like a completely different team. Still, they had that physical edge.

“You want to play with skill, they’ could outskill you,” 1980 Olympic gold medalist and Winthrop, Mass. native Mike Eruzione said. “You want to fight them, they’d outfight you. You were either going to get out-talented or you were going to get beat up.”

The duo of Esposito and Orr took the league by storm. Esposito put together a 99-point season (43 goals and 56 assists) while Orr had 120 points (33 goals and 87 assists) while capturing the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer and the Hart Memorial Trophy as the MVP.

Even with Esposito and Orr playing the best hockey of their careers, the Bruins needed every ounce of their offensive firepower during the 1970 campaign. After all, the top five teams in the East Division had at least 92 points. The Bruins were tied with the Blackhawks atop the division with 99 points.

The Bruins defeated the New York Rangers and Blackhawks in the first two rounds before advancing to the Stanley Cup Final where they would take on the St. Louis Blues. That was where Orr would become a legend in the city of Boston.

Boston rolled through the opening three games of the Stanley Cup Finals as they outscored St. Louis 16-4. However, earning their first Stanley Cup in 29 years wouldn’t come easy.

Despite the Bruins taking a 1-0 lead in Game 4, the Blues battled back to take a 3-2 lead before Bucyk tied the game late in the third period. That set the stage of Orr to work his magic in overtime.

Early in the overtime period, the Blues were looking to clear the zone, but Orr didn’t allow that to happen. Orr passed the puck to Derek Sanderson behind the net then he his made towards the slot. Sanderson ended up hitting Orr with a picture-perfect pass that Orr deposited for the Stanley Cup-clinching goal.

As any hockey historian knows, this was the iconic play where Orr leaped off his feet in celebration. That is one of the most legendary photos in NHL and perhaps even sports history.

1970 Stanley Cup Finals - Game 4: St. Louis Blues v Boston Bruins

Getty Images

“When they won that championship, I don’t know what Nirvana looks like, but that’s it,” Pro Football Hall of Famer and Boston native Howie Long said.

“The passion in that city for that team…it was present. It was everywhere. Anybody who grew up in Boston or was from Boston knows that ’70 team.”

What Orr, Esposito, and the rest of the Bruins were able to accomplish in 1970 lives on in Boston folklore. For a team that has recently grown accustomed to competing for and winning championships again, many believe that this team was one that was extremely special. Now the Bruins did win another Stanley Cup during the 1971-72 season, but the 1970 team is the one that lives on.

“That team just lives on,” actor and Boston native Denis Leary said. “I don’t know if any team will ever become as iconic as they were.”

Orr had arguably the most dominant season that any player has had in NHL history. The Parry Sound, Ontario native swept all four of the league’s major awards, winning the Norris Trophy (best defenseman) and Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP), in addition to the Hart and Art Ross. Orr’s 120-point season was double what any NHL defenseman had ever recorded in a single season.

Just one season later, Orr would eclipse his own points record (139). However, much to the hockey world’s dismay, Orr had his career cut short due to several knee surgeries. He finished out his career with the Blackhawks before announcing his retirement in 1978.

Even in a career that only spanned 10 seasons, Orr is still regarded as one of the greatest players in NHL history. Orr helped transform the Bruins from a team that spent several seasons in the cellar of the East Division to a dominant force that raised Lord Stanley’s Cup in that special 1970 season.

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