Yes, yes… it’s sacrilege to feature a member of the Boston Bruins here. But Terry O’Reilly is one of the greats of his team, currently the Canadiens’ playoff opponent, and it was O’Reilly, who was done some great charity work in Montreal, who was behind the Bruins bench in 1988 as head coach when Boston ended a 45-year playoff drought against the Habs.
I had a great talk with O’Reilly in 2007, and he looked terrific a few days ago when I saw him again in Boston, the Bruins’ pre-game flag-bearer and honourary captain for his old team’s Game 2 match against the Habs.
Great stories, great history – as is usually the case with players of his generation. Enjoy the read below… or skip to the next post if you must.
Published March 12, 2007
One of the most popular Boston Bruins of all time will set off a Logan Airport metal detector on his way here later this month. But that’s something the indestructible Terry O’Reilly has been doing for two years, since he had his battered hips replaced with titanium joints that have dramatically improved his life – if not his skating.
“I hope all the Canadiens keep their heads up,” O’Reilly said with mock menace of the March 30 Bell Centre game between Montreal and Boston alumni.
And then he laughed.
“You know, so they won’t run over me. I’ll be the wearing the orange sweater, marked like a pylon so they can go around me.
O’Reilly never won any skating contests during his 13-year NHL career, all 999 of his grinding games from 1972-85 played in a Bruins jersey. But he was an unholy terror especially on Boston Garden ice, a rink a few feet smaller than today’s regulation 200 by 85 feet.
He ruled the boards, the corners and often the goal crease, and was adored for his Irish blood and lunch-pail work ethic in a blue-collar town that expected dirt beneath the fingernails of its heroes. His No. 24 was retired in 2002, as much a tribute to what he meant to his fans in Boston as to his team.
So, soon O’Reilly will return to this city with a dozen former Bruins for a few laughs and the serious business of raising money for the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation.
“With the new hardware are a few disadvantages,” said this Bionic Bruin, a 55-year-old native of Oshawa, Ont. “I don’t have the mobility or agility or speed of before.”
“I’d have fared better if I hadn’t been a goalie from age 8 to 12, and skated a little more. But I’m pain-free now, and the day after I skate, I feel no discomfort. The hips weren’t done just so I could play old man’s hockey. I was having trouble walking.”
O’Reilly spent two weeks in Birmingham, England, undergoing surgery and initial rehabilitation. He returned home in a wheelchair, moved into a walker, then leaned on two canes, and finally one. From there he was on a stationary bike, on skates and, last summer, 18 months after his surgery, he took part in a two-day, 309-km charity bike ride.
You loved this man if you were a Bruins fans during his day. You loathed him if you cheered for any other team, because he was the guy crashing your goalie or smearing the face of your best player along the glass, even if he usually was penalized two or more minutes for the gesture.
O’Reilly was sentenced to 2,430 minutes in the penalty box – the equivalent of 40 1/2 games, or virtually half a season. He was so at home in the local sin bin that when they demolished 70-year-old Boston Garden in 1998, they gave him the entire box, bolted onto a wheeled platform that he can roll out of the Bruins’ TD Garden, where it’s on loan for display. O’Reilly has hauled it on a flatbed to a few of his charity appearances.
Fans got to know him well around the league. Almost against their will, they came to like the guy.
“It was a passionate hate, at first,” O’Reilly said. “But as years went by, I’d show up for an exhibition game in the fall, get a penalty, head for the box and the season-ticket holders behind it would be smiling, yelling: ‘Hey Terry, have a good summer?’ ”
His rap sheet should not totally overshadow his good skills. O’Reilly scored 229 times and had 444 assists, including a 29-goal, 90-point season in 1977-78, and was plus-212 for his career.
But still, that legendary Irish temper:
On Dec. 26, 1979, he climbed into New York’s Madison Square Garden crowd, followed by his team, after a Rangers fan stole Bruin Stan Jonathan’s stick and clubbed him with it. O’Reilly was suspended eight games for his mountaineering efforts.
And 25 years ago next month, he slugged referee Andy van Hellemond, who jumped him as he pursued Quebec’s Dale Hunter in Game 7 of the Adams Division final to avenge a Game 6 spearing by the Nordique.
The series was lost to Quebec, Boston down 2-1 with two seconds to play and the faceoff in the neutral zone. O’Reilly recalls: “I’m just thinking: ‘OK, I’m gonna get this guy.’ ”
But his chase of Hunter was intercepted by van Hellemond, who surprised O’Reilly by hauling him down by the sweater. The Bruin jumped up and swung, his right gloved hand connecting with the referee’s left temple. A 10-game suspension was accompanied by a $500 fine.
“Today, that’s 40 games,” O’Reilly said. “Andy was wrong to grab my sweater, but I’d take back (the punch) if I could. I wish it hadn’t happened.”
He has few other regrets, including having turned down a four-year St. Louis University scholarship in 1969. He was drafted in 1971 by the Bruins in the first round, 14th overall, and was in the NHL after one season in the minors, captaining the Bruins his final two years.
Failing to beat the Canadiens in four playoff attempts broke O’Reilly’s heart. But he coached Boston over Montreal in the five-game 1988 Adams final, eliminating the Canadiens at the Forum. It was the first time Boston had ousted Montreal in 45 years.
“You’d be striving to win the Stanley Cup, then come up against the great Montreal machine,” said O’Reilly, whose name was never stamped on the NHL’s sterling prize.
“Even coaching – nine seconds left in that final game against the Canadiens, with a three-goal lead, and I’m looking at the clock, saying: ‘There’s still time. They can still come back.’ ”
The Bruins fell to Edmonton in a five-game Stanley Cup final in ’88, after having beaten New Jersey in seven to advance.
Today, O’Reilly is busy in Salisbury, Mass., in real-estate and other businesses. He remains a monstrously popular Bruin, one who understands he might struggle in the modern NHL.
“If I came along now, with the same set of skills I had at age 20, I’d be a long time, if not forever, buried in the minors,” he said.
“It’s not the same hockey it once was. I just watched a 1960s Stanley Cup game between Detroit and Toronto, the wingers moving up and down the ice like on a table-hockey game.
“Here’s Gordie Howe backing into Johnny Bower, knocking him into the net. So Gordie drops to his knees and helps Johnny up, dusting the snow off him, apologizing. In a playoff game.”
He did not add that if this forward was named O’Reilly and not Howe, Bower would still be on his Maple Leaf butt.