Rick Middleton will be honored tonight starting at 6:30 this evening, delaying the puck drop by at least an hour. I will attempt to explain in some simple way why this man deserves this adoration
Firstly, one of the most magical things about Rick Middleton was that other than a supernatural ability to play hockey, if you saw him outside a jersey, you’d almost never recognize him. He looked like a combination of everyone’s dad, uncle, or grandpa from high school to the mid-90’s in old photographs in nearly game he ever played. Hockey players today look like athletes. They’re chiseled from stone and then hardened into peak human perfection by years of go-getter parents, coaches, and attitude. They look like the last slice of bread they ate was on a peanut butter sandwich back when they were in kindergarten and the last piece of candy they touched they gave out on Halloween then donated afterwards.
Guys like Rick would seem like almost an anomaly if they showed up at an NHL Training camp today. He looked about as likely to grumble out a “goddamnit” and go get a rusty box of tools to go spend an hour and a half swearing under his breath to fix a leaking water pipe under the sink as deke you out of your skates. In still photographs, you can see where the fat of a normal human head exists. He’s athletic sure, but normal, human athletic. And yet, watching him play, you’d wonder how he never scored on every shift, because he was often the best player on the ice, and if he wasn’t, it was because the late 70’s and then the entire 80’s were completely inundated in crazy scoring talent.
“Nifty” Rick had a magic about his skillset that made then-GM of the Bruins
John Ferguson Jr look like a genius for ever pulling off the Ken Hodge trade. His hands were a kind of magic unto themselves as he could move a puck like it was taped to his stick, even if he had to go through a defender to do so, and he often did, he lived and played in the time before people gave a damn about calling penalties evenly for anything other than the most egregious offenses. What is now called holding was once a perfectly acceptable form of defense in his day. He didn’t care. He was just too fast for a lot of backcheckers to catch. He could sneak behind even the largest players and make them look foolish and slow. He would fight tooth and nail to end up in front of the net, and when he did he would find a way to make a defense look as useless as possible.
His shot was ruinous in the way great players can have ruinous shots: it killed hope in the goaltender’s heart. And I’d like to draw your attention to this goal in particular against the very team that traded him: New York to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
The way the goalie reacts is priceless. You can see he had him scouted. He thinks he’s ready for the shot. He’s going to make this stop and-boom. Over his glove. From a tough angle. In the actual video the shot zips right past the underside of his elbow. The goalie barely moves, and when the reaction of a goal comes, he responds like he just got sent to detention for existing in the same space as the kid who broke a rule and was caught laughing at the Vice Principal. He was one of the more subdued reactions I found; other goaltenders would just start having tantrums or fall over in surprise. They had him. And he got through anyway. Rick Middleton was straight up unfair when he found an opening, and for five straight years he managed to find those kinds of insane openings 40 times.
Nearly all footage you can find online of the guy is kinda like that gif. Archival footage and highlights of goals repackaged from the slow-motion replay or what passed for that in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and in a way it does rob Middleton of something; his speed. Nifty Rick had ridiculous acceleration and near-nuclear watch-like timing on when to turn on the jets and blow past a defender.
Of course, by watching it in real-time, we are robbed of the little things. Scoring plays with Middleton lasted anywhere from 3 to 6 seconds, and in that time the puck changes positions on (or off) his stick anywhere from three to four times. One time he even got past a defender by knocking the puck flat so it would slide right past him.
If you pay attention to his stick, you can see him just slap the puck quick enough not only to settle it from rolling around, but to beat the defender before he does. One shift in a game against the Flyers was so fast the poor hapless rube who had to change the cameras wisely because the director knew he couldn’t keep up with Rick. He could only show the aftermath.
All this led up to a player who, to this day, still holds the record for most Assists and points in a single playoff series, and the highest points-per-game average among Right Wing forwards in that category. Who had 100 points in 114 playoff games. Who was just 12 regular season points shy of 1000 when he retired.
Who, even in an 80’s dominated by absolutely incredible and ridiculous leaps in skill, still managed to find a way to carve out a legacy in Boston that would make him a favorite in any fan who got to watch or see him play live. Even going back and experiencing him through just a package on youtube can make you revel in how much fun and chaos he could create in a single
And because of all that, the number 16 will hang high above the rafters in Boston, with Rick’s name encircling.
He will have earned it. Well done, and to those attending tonight’s contest, enjoy the ceremony.