OTBH: There and Back Again

Dit Clapper and Bill Cowley - Imperial Oil-Turofsky/HHOF

Welcome back, Detroit.

In my continuing quest to bring the people what they want, I was fully intending to put together another WWII era post for today. Which, in fact, this is. Along the way, however, I was reminded forcibly of one of the big changes facing the Bruins this season: the (re)introduction of the Detroit Red Wings into their division.

The Wings and B's have played each other a lot - a LOT - over the years, which should be the case for any two teams that have been kicking around as long as they have. They've met during the regular season, during the playoffs, and during the Final. In recent years, however, Bruins fans have been limited to seeing the Wings once or twice a year. No more, my friends: these two ancient and noble houses teams face off 4 times this upcoming season, plus another two times during the pre-season.

I was reminded of this exciting development when looking at the 1944-1954 Bruins season. While the Second World War was entering its final year, that season saw a continuing depletion of the hockey ranks as more and more players joined the armed services. The Bruins lost one of their promising players from the year before, Bep Guidolin, for example: while the war in Europe would be declared over less than a month after the end of the playoffs that year, the 1944-1945 season was one still very much marked by wartime conditions.

As such, all 6 NHL squads were still rolling their "B" teams, with Dit Clapper remaining one of the few long-time Bruins still with the team. But before you start thinking that the lack of star players would level the playing field, lemme just point out that the B's and the Wings met 10 times over the course of the regular 50 game season: the Bruins lost 9 of those games, and only managed to pull out a tie against Detroit in their final matchup of the year. Even worse, they lost five of those games by three goals or more. Not the Bruins' best season series ever, for sure.

Despite their abysmal record against the Red Wings, the Bruins did manage to get themselves into the playoffs, which they had missed the year before. Their final record was 16-30-4: oh, for the days when that stat line was enough to get you into the playoffs. Sigh. In any case, Boston squeaked in by the very skin of their teeth, only to find themselves facing the Wings in the first round.

First round of the playoffs. An opponent you hadn't managed to beat all season. A ongoing global conflict that had required the services of your best players. As a Bruins fan in 1945, one had to be skeptical (at best) about the team's chances going forward. Bill Cowley's scoring heroics aside (he finished fourth in points that season), the Bruins were the extreme underdog going into the series in literally every sense. One Boston reporter had this to say the day before the series opened:

Why a couple of nice fellows like Bibeault and Bennett [the Bruins goalies] should contend for the dubious distinction of being clay pigeons for shots like Carl Liscombe, Flash Hollett and Joe Carveth, we normal folks will never understand. But the Bruins wouldn't be favored to beat the Red Wings, either tonight or in the series, even if Ross has been able to pick Frank Brimsek, Tiny Thompson, or even Georges Vezina himself. Records, speed, manpower, experience--all favor the Red Wings, who finished second, 24 points ahead of the fourth-place Bruins.

Alrighty, then. But as always, sports are sports, and sometimes the unexpected happens. Like the Bruins winning their first two games against the Wings--in Detroit, no less. Of course, the Wings took the next two games in Boston, essentially making the series a best of three. Detroit won the next game in OT, the Bruins the sixth, and in a raucous game 7, the Red Wings emerged victorious, earning to right to play for the Cup against a Toronto Maple Leafs team that had upset the favored Canadiens.

It was a wild series, full of comebacks and unexpected wins and constantly changing narratives. The Bruins came back twice in that final game, only to lose by a score of 5 to 3. Even this, the seemingly most predictable of series, was at its core essentially unpredictable. It had Detroit center Murray Armstrong saying before the game: "Luck is going to decide this one, like it has decided the others." It was the kind of series you talk about after it's done, because it was just so damn fun.

Of course, that series and those teams have little to do with their modern counterparts. Both the Red Wings and the Bruins have seen their fair shares of ups and downs in the intervening 69 years. We all can only hope for the intensity, emotion, and snarkiness of that 1945 playoff series in the games the two squads will play this season. May all the games the two play be precisely that damn fun.

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