Book Review – ‘The Big 50: Boston Bruins’

Identity. Toughness. Hard-working. Blue Collar. These were the words that Fluto Shinzawa used to describe the Boston Bruins. In his new book, The Big 50: Boston Bruins, Shinzawa chronicles the 50 most important men and moments that have made the Bruins one of the most historically-cherished franchises in all of professional sports. The experienced Boston Globe writer took on the challenge of ranking the most important pieces in Bruins history, one through 50, and in doing so created a must-read for any hockey fan who wants to understand the immense history of the first National Hockey League team that called the United States home.

The book covers a wide-range of subjects, ranging from Boston’s Golden Age led by the legendary Bobby Orr to the struggles and Dark Age of the Bruins in the 1960s. From Milt Schmidt to Ray Bourque, to the style of play that the Bruins introduced to the league, the book gives an interesting perspective to which pieces of the puzzle really stick out from the rest.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Shinzawa about his new work, the Bruins, and what lies ahead for the organization as well as the NHL as a whole.

The Ranking

When you look at a franchise that has a history as rich as the Bruins’, it can be a pretty daunting task to determine who and what has had the largest impact on creating the organization that we know today. It’s a task that Shinzawa was pleased to have, despite the brain strain that it would undoubtedly cause.

“I think getting the 50 took some thought and took some research of course, but I think the harder thing for me was to determine the ranking rather than the 50,” he told me. “You could come up with a lot of players that probably deserve some contention, but for me the hardest part was trying to put everything into context. For example, how does a player from the 1920s or 1930s stay relevant, or have the proper context compared to say, Patrice Bergeron.”

He brought up a point that is well-debated with regards to ranking anything in sports. How can you compare a player or event from decades ago to another player or event from today? Clearly, they exist in two different worlds of the sport, and it’s a challenge that anybody has to consider when creating such a ranking.

For Shinzawa, the first spot was easy. Nobody who wore the spoked-B ever affected the game as much as Bobby Orr. But once you move past Number Four, the job gets a lot tougher.

There was no doubting who would take the #1 spot on Shinzawa’s ranking – Bobby Orr

“There was no question who was going to be number one, but after Bobby Orr, how does everything fall into line? For my generation of viewers, certainly the 2011 Cup was momentous. But framed against everything else, how did it stand up to, say, the ‘70 and ‘72 teams, or the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s teams? So that was the hard part for me. Again, it’s subjective. Your list is going to be different than mine versus what thousands of other Bruins fans think of, so that was a challenge.”

Every list like this is subjective, as Shinzawa reiterated several times when I spoke with him. Even when it comes to comparing players from the same generation, different people will have different perspectives on who had the biggest impact, who did more for the franchise, and so on.

“You want to make sure everything is in the right order, even from this current group of players,” Shinzawa said. “Does Tim Thomas deserve to be ahead of Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara? Maybe some people would argue about that. I felt he should be. But that was the hard part.”

Ultimately, each person will have a different viewpoint on who or what played a role in a franchise. And that’s one of the things that makes this book so enjoyable. The ranking format, as Shinzawa pointed out, allows for reader interaction. While reading through Shinzawa’s rankings, you can make your own judgments as a reader as to the importance of each piece. Oftentimes, these history-oriented books are set in chronological order. But the list-format, in this case, was much more user-friendly.

“People like lists, whether it’s top 50 moments, or ten best games we’ve ever seen, or the twenty best goalies. For whatever reason we all gravitate towards those lists, so that’s what Triumph (the publisher) was looking for – a pretty clear cut, specific ranking one through 50 in that order rather than (going through chronologically) the ‘20s, 30s, ‘40s, ‘50s. I think from my perspective it does lend itself to a little bit more of a user-friendly format just because most books will probably skew towards the traditional, chronological order of events.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about establishing your own perspective.

“That’s how these lists are. They’re flexible, they’re all subjective – there’s no clear-cut science for all of this – no data that leads you to say declaratively on one through 50 and how it should be ranked. It’s just one person’s opinion.” he said. “That leads to thinking from a reader’s perspective. My top 10 is probably going to be different from your top ten, and that’s fine. Hopefully that provokes some thinking and maybe brings back some memories for some people.”

The History of the Bruins

Bruins’ netminder Gerry Cheevers played twelve seasons with the Bruins

When you’re looking at all of the factors that have come together to create such a historic franchise, it’s important to consider the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sure, the most memorable moments for Bruins fans are probably the positive ones the dominant teams of the early 70s, and the wildly entertaining Cup run in 2011. However, it’s important to remember that the low times have also played a large role in creating the team we know today. Shinzawa was able to work in both.

We talked about a few of the topics that Shinzawa wrote about, and I asked him what he considered to be the high-point and low-point for the Bruins throughout their history.

He believes that the Golden Age of the Bruins, unsurprisingly, was the ’70 and ’72 teams that brought two Cups to Boston in a span of three years.

“Certainly Bobby Orr, and within that context those teams ‘70, ‘71, and ‘72,” he said. “I think that was, based on what everybody recalls of those teams, that was certainly the high point not just because of the individual players and the quality and the talent that was there and what they achieved in terms of two Cups in three years, and it probably should’ve been a third if not for Montreal in ‘71.”

Sure, it’s easy to look at the Bruins’ history and pick out their dominance from the early ’70s as the brightest spot in their future. It was, after all, the most dominant team the Bruins have ever put on the ice. However, the team’s relevance reaches beyond the rink.

The Bruins of the early 70’s were Boston’s team. The culture that they had established both on and off the ice connected with their fanbase. They were characters. They lived a Hollywood-like lifestyle. And more than anything, they embodied the culture of the city around them. To the city of Boston, the Bruins were more than just a hockey team.

“It’s that they were something bigger than hockey in Boston, that you had people literally camping out for tickets, and you think about that now with hockey, or with any sport, it sounds incredible to realize just how big (the Bruins were). It had grown to more a cultural thing how those teams had just consumed the city, the state, and the region with how they played, what they achieved, and how they went about their business.

Certainly, there was a lot of off-ice stuff that probably wouldn’t be acceptable to today that they were doing in terms of their lifestyle,” he joked, “but that all played a part into who they were and what they had become.”

Winning the Stanley Cup against St. Louis
Bobby Orr’s historic Stanley Cup winning goal marks the peak of the Bruins’ Golden Age.

Of course, the Golden Age that the Bruins had established in the early 1970s was not always present. There were Bruins teams that struggled tremendously and almost became irrelevant in the unforgiving city of Boston. However, it was not a specific team’s lack of success that Shinzawa considers the low-point in the Bruins’ history. Instead, it was a freak injury that prevented a very promising career from ever playing out.

That tragic night in October of 1982, when 19-year-old Normand Léveillé suffered a brain aneurysm as a result of a clean body check, marks the low-point for the Bruins in Shinzawa’s eyes.

“There were certainly some tough teams in the ‘60’s, but I would have to say just on an individual stand-point, the chapter about Normand Léveillé (was the low point), just because of who he was, what kind of projected future he had, what kind of hope the organization had at the time, and then to have something so left-field in terms of almost a catastrophic brain injury, that’s just heartbreaking to think of what that player could have been in terms of his production on the ice. And then his lifestyle and his life were compromised too. It’s hard just because of what they had believed he would become, and what ultimately didn’t happen just because of his health issues. I would say, you can talk a lot about team-wise, the disappointment and not making the playoffs and what have you, but to see a player’s health, especially at such a young age be compromised I think that would qualify as the low point.”

Ultimately, the good and the bad have come together to create a franchise like no other. When the Bruins entered the National Hockey League as the first American franchise, they introduced a new style of play. Very few teams in professional sports can take credit for introducing a such a unique style, and sticking to that style through the ages, as the Bruins have. They created and have since upheld a unique identity that of the Big Bad Bruins.

“Certainly as one of the Original Six, one of the franchises that set the template for what the league would become. It’s neat that there’s a different style than Montreal. If you look at the ways that the Canadiens went about their business, they played for the most part a style that was different than the Bruins. So I think in that broad 30,000-foot view, that the contribution that the Bruins made goes back to that identity – that not every team was built that way, not every team played that way consistently throughout different generations. For whatever reasons, that style was able to persist, regardless of what era you’re talking about. So I think that’s ultimately the most significant contribution they made to the league was that this has always been a franchise that played a certain way, and it was consistent from day one until now.”

“I think you can trace back even to the Eddie Shore era that there was certainly an identity around this team that has bridged through the generations. I’m not sure if you can sustain it the way the game is played now. But certainly blue collar, hard-working, you always hear that about the Bruins, but I think it’s true. The fans, the customers of this team have always enjoyed that kind of style, from the ’20s right on through.”

Even the team’s superstars, as Shinzawa pointed out, have embraced the identity that the Black and Gold have held onto for so long.

“You can even look at Bobby Orr he had all the skill in the world and he could skate around everybody and have the vision and the creativity, but he was a tough player. He didn’t back down from anybody. So I think that is an essence that was certainly there before him and was exemplified by that team. The way they ran over everybody extended into the ‘70s with the Cherry teams, with Terry O’Reilly, Mike Milbury those types of players the toughness. And we saw it again in 2011 with Lucic, Chara, and those types of players. It’s always been something that has been connected with the organization that kind of identity, the toughness, the in-your-face, hard-working, blue-collar. Will that extend into this version, with the speed game? Probably not, just because I think that it’s evolving beyond that.”

Bobby Orr and an Ever-Changing Game

The game of hockey is always changing. With every decade a quick glimpse at film reveals some pretty significant changes in the way the sport is played. Even for a team like the Bruins, that has maintained a certain identity for so long, the way the business runs must always be evolving.

Tracing Bobby Orr’s track to the Bruins makes this extremely clear. Orr, an Ontario native, was spotted by the Bruins at a very young age. In the pre-draft days, recruiting was a completely different animal. The Bruins, in particular, faced a challenge in trying to recruit Canadian-born players to an American team.

It’s understandable, then, that the Bruins began playing suitor to Orr at the young age of 12.

“First of all it’s incredible to think of how young Bobby was when he was already being identified as not just a future NHL player, but a generational player. 12-years-old was crazy to think about today. And maybe that’s the case when you think about it. I think by that age Crosby had become one of those players where people were thinking ‘Oh boy, this kid is going to be pretty good,’ and I’m sure the same thing with McDavid too. But at 12 years old to be scouted that significantly and to be projected high that’s unbelievable, which just shows you how significant of a talent and prodigy that Orr was at the time.”

Bobby Orr, Wayne Cashman, Boston Bruins
By the time Orr was flying past opponents with the Oshawa Generals, he was already well on the Bruins’ radar.

Of course, this was the only option that teams had in the pre-draft days. You couldn’t simply stake claim to a player and protect him like you can today. Back then, it was all about getting the players to come to you. Since then, the game has changed drastically. So much of the game now relies on the entry draft. It has become a major pillar in the way a team operates. Now, it seems, everything has to do with the draft. Scouting, trading, and even a judging a team’s success are all done with the draft in mind. That was not always the case.

“That was the only route that organizations could take to get talent. There were no drafts. It’s crazy to think about now with how much teams are invested in the amateur draft in terms of recruiting and scouting of amateur players, junior, college, and certainly even younger than that – high-school-aged players – that just didn’t exist at the time, which is hard to think of from a modern-day NHL consumer’s perspective that that kind of pipeline just wasn’t around.”

“That plays a huge part not just in identifying future players, but in your team building. You hear general managers talk about all the time now, especially in the cap era, that the draft is the lifeblood of an organization, and that just wasn’t how it worked. You had to find your players and commit to them long-term. Absolutely, that changed the NHL significantly.”

David Pastrnak
The past can teach us a lot about the future. Where are the Bruins headed today? (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

Today, of course, the game continues to change. The physical style of play that the Bruins are so familiar with is becoming obsolete, instead being replaced by the speed and skill of this generation’s youth. It leaves questions about what direction the Bruins will turn in the future.

Will they move on from the physical style of play that has been their centerpiece for so long? Can they adapt that style to include the speed and creativity of today’s game? Where exactly is the league heading, and which strategies will create success for the future? It’s the million-dollar question, not just for the Bruins, but for all the NHL.

“I see such a shift in the style of hockey that’s being played.” Shinzawa said. “The approach that worked for them (the Bruins) up until now I just don’t see that being as relevant. I don’t think the physical style will ever go away just because of the nature of the game, but it’s just so much faster now that it’s evolved now to a point where it’s a real mystery as to how and not just the Bruins how teams will blend in the physical aspect to the skill and the speed. Does that brand identity extend into the next five, 10, 15 years of the game? I don’t know. I’m really not sure if it will just given how much faster the game has gotten.”

“I think they’re (the Bruins) trying to adapt like every team towards speed and skill, and maybe they’re behind some of the other teams. You look at Chicago and Pittsburgh, they’re probably right at the forefront of teams that have recognized which direction the game is going and what will succeed for them. Are the Bruins there? No, it’s going to take some time to catch up to that perspective.”

Believe it or not, everything that’s been covered here merely scratches at the surface of Shinzawa’s work. The Big 50 incorporates a piece of everything from Boston’s glory days, to their darkest days, and everything in between, all while establishing a ranking as to where every piece falls within the history of the Bruins.

Shinzawa’s work really is a must-read for anyone looking to appreciate the history of a landmark franchise. Has Shinzawa ordered everything in the right place? Is he correct in his ranking of Boston’s most important building blocks? You be the judge.

The Big 50: Boston Bruins is available on Amazon. You can find Shinzawa’s work for the Boston Globe here and can connect with him on Twitter at @GlobeFluto.