By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins’ Feb. 13 ceremony to honor the 40th anniversary of the 11 players who surpassed the 20-goal mark in the 1977-78 season did more than just reunite a group of players and their coach, giving the fans of Boston a chance to salute them all.
It also rekindled memories and brought up an important subject: Why hadn’t the Bruins retired the number of Rick Middleton, who scored 25 goals that season?
“We talked a lot about it last year on the air at NESN, Dale [Arnold] and I in particular from being around in the area a long time. You know it kind of hit us a lot when they had the ceremony last year bringing back the guys and Grapes [Don Cherry] for the record, the 20-goal men scoring record,” Middleton’s longtime center Barry Pederson reminisced by phone Wednesday. “And talking to some of the older guys, they couldn’t believe it hadn’t happened.”
Well the wait is almost over because Bruins president Cam Neely announced Tuesday that ‘Nifty’ will have his No. 16 raised to the rafters on Nov. 29. Middleton, whose 402 goals with the Bruins rank third on the franchise’s all-time list behind Johnny Bucyk (545) and Phil Esposito (459), will be the 11th player to have his number retired by the Bruins.
Middleton retired after the 1987-88 season with 988 career points, 898 of which came with the Bruins (he played two seasons for the New York Rangers before coming over in a Harry Sinden heist for Ken Hodge).
Since the end of his playing career, Middleton has been around the Bruins working with their alumni, working as a broadcaster and getting involved in other ventures. However, his number stayed in circulation. When the Bruins were willing to issue the 16 to Kaspars Daugavins in 2013, one had to wonder if the organization was ever going to show it the proper respect.
Well since Dog Man’s departure from Causeway Street, it hasn’t been worn by another player. And now it’ll find its place in the rafters between 15 and 24.
Don’t for a second think that Middleton hadn’t considered a few times whether he would see his number up where it belongs.
“Well, you know, usually we go up into the alumni suite on the ninth floor [at TD Garden], so they’re about eye level. I can’t miss them,” Middleton said of his number gazing. “But you know where I’ve noticed them quite a bit lately is when I go over to Warrior rink. They’re really the only thing hanging up there, and I’ve seen it. I can’t lie, at times I’ve looked up between Milt Schmidt and Terry O’Reilly, there seemed to be a lot of room there, and I was just hoping one day, maybe, my name would go up, and today’s the day.”
Middleton’s most productive season was 1983-84, when he had 105 points (47 goals, 58 assists). That season Pederson had 116 points (39 goals, 77 assists) and formed a dynamic duo with his soon-to-be-honored winger.
Pederson was an outstanding offensive player in his own right in his prime for the Bruins, but his stay with Boston was shorter. During the 30 years since Middleton’s retirement, though, Pederson never stopped being reminded of his magical linemate.
“I can’t tell you how many times I still, if I’m playing golf or in tournaments, charity events, people are always talking about a Middleton highlight,” Pederson said. “He just made it look so special. So for me, I’m really grateful that the organization gave him the great honor, because it’s truly, truly deserved.”
That’s one of the things that’s great about Bruins fans — they never stop talking about their great players from every era. The Bruins haven’t always treated their royalty with the same reverence as the fan base, but now they’re going to retire a number for the first time in 16 years. There are still plenty of greats that have yet to be honored, including Gerry Cheevers, Wayne Cashman and Bill Cowley. The Bruins should be quick to honor those greats, and maybe more, within the next decade, before the current crop of players led by Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron take their turn pulling the rope to raise their sweater.
And now that Middleton is finally being honored by the Bruins, it’s time for the Hockey Hall of Fame to follow suit and make sure Middleton gets his due.
“Because his numbers really, really warrant it,” Pederson said, joining the chorus that wants to see Middleton honored in Toronto. “And he really was one of great players of his era.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.