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Rivalry Week: Remembering the Rangers-Bruins wars of the 1970’s

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Boston vs. New York. Tale as old as time, Song as old as rhyme...in this case, at least over 50 years old now.

Phil Esposito and Bob Nevin Playing Hockey Photo by Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images

Boston vs New York is one of those things that’s just...omnipresent. For about a hundred thousand reasons that frankly, we don’t really need to get into here. But inevitably, each sports team from both towns will pair off and get into a good ol’ donnybrook. Some will only last a little while before dying down.

Others...well, yeah.

And because of that natural inclination for both cities to throw hands at each other, it’s only natural that the B’s and the Rangers would inevitably butt heads at some point. And in the early 1970’s, there was bad blood abound. While it wasn’t always the knock-down drag’em out brawls that the Flyers and Bruins games of the same time could often devolve into, it certainly had a much more bitter, personal edge to it when they did.

Part of it was that, while they were at each other’s throats, they both had something to prove; New York and Boston were coming out of the initial NHL Expansion as the resurgent teams of the league, and had some of the better talents populating their rosters both in their prime and in their youth: Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Derek Sanderson, Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, Rod Gilbert, Glen Sather; the list goes on. And each and every one of them had a point to make. But only one squad got to go on to become 1970 Stanley Cup Champs.

The Rangers proceeded to get punched directly in the mouth right at the beginning of the decade in the Quarterfinals. Six games deciding.

Of course, neither side assumes it’s over. Not by a long shot. In the 1971-72 season, both teams are “The team to beat”, as both finish 1st and 2nd in the league. The GAG line for the Rangers causes terror throughout the league in the same way Orr and Esposito were becoming menaces of their own. Ed Giacomin and Gerry Cheevers were becoming impossible to beat in net, and both sides were absolutely willing to take liberties and throw down when it came time to enforce a little justice. It seemed only fated that things would resolve themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Six games would decide it once again.

But Boston would be the ones to come out on top, and that did stick in their opponent’s craws.

A few years pass, and it seems like that things are cooling off. The Bruins and Rangers don’t play in the same conference at this time, and are dealing with their own demons; Orr’s knees are becoming increasingly shot, and the Bruins are dealing with the Habs (when aren’t they), and New York is coming to terms with the rising Flyers, Sabres, and in 1973, their immediate neighbors in the Islanders.

And then a trade gets announced that must’ve floored anyone who saw those early 70’s series.

The New York Times

Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle. There are other particulars, but those names stick out like daggers. They’d been enemies and tied inextricably to each team for years...and now they donned the other’s sweater? It must’ve been like waking up to find out gravity reversed and the family dog is now standing on clouds.

And somehow...it worked out for Boston rather than the Rangers. Boston had largely only ever bolstered their roster as the years went on in preparation for another run (preferably once the Habs were done winning cups), the Rangers changed so much so fast that they ended up completely screwing their roster in the long run. It would become a recurring theme of roster transactions between the two for quite awhile, as yet again the Rangers decided they’d move a longstanding piece on the Bruins for another talent they considered expendable. Some kid by the name of Rick.

Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Needless to say, the Rangers fanbase had plenty of reasons to have a hateful opinion of the Bruins by that point; everything they had in the B’s hands turned to gold and everything the B’s gave in return turned to ash and dust.

But it all came to the head that we all might aware of in a powderkeg explosion to end the fury of the decade, just at the end of 1979.

Punctuated with a shoe. I believe it’s a wingtip.

It comes at the end of a game where Phil Esposito isn’t playing well, and gets stoned on the doorstep by Cheevers before the final horn of what is otherwise a fairly standard late 70’s matinee game. Frustrated, Espo breaks his stick and goes to the locker room. Tempers flare as both sides converge, But nobody’s throwing punches yet, which in this time period is a sure sign something is about to go very wrong. The Refs try to separate the more fight inclined players by the boards.

Then a fan at MSG decides to throw a punch for them. And then all hell breaks loose.

Players erupt into the stands. Fans fight players. Players fight fans. Mike Milbury enters his first ticket into hockey infamy with the heel of a man’s shoe, and it’s the fan who goes to jail for provoking it. It’s the perfect blowoff to such a bitter, angry, ugly rivalry whose sole concern was proving to each other that they were the northeast, and that they were the real heirs to the Original 6’s throne. And by the end of the decade they were so fed up with everything to do with each other that even the fans were throwing sucker punches. Not out of a need to show who’s boss, but out of a deep, existential loathing.

Both sides just raspily growling “Looking at you right makes me so angry I could commit deep violence, so it is time for you to get the hell OUT of here” at each other until people were out there fighting each other with improvised weapons. It was perfect.

After that, things die down. Much of the 80’s is New York going to war with Long Island, Boston setting their new cornerstone players up, and inevitably both sides drifting apart from each other for quite a while.

There were sparks in the early 2010’s, and certainly no Bruins fan would claim to be a Rangers fans’ best friend, but the flame never burned as brightly or as hot as it did in the 70’s. The rage directed from New York is a lot of the usual tired stuff: dirty hits, Brad Marchand, Brad Marchand performing dirty hits, New York being better a city than Boston or vice versa, that sort of thing. Less of the sheer bile that permeates other rivalries, and more the usual comfortable Boston-New York rivalry kvetching that’s been part of the region’s lexicon for...well, ever.

I mean, no Rangers fan has even tried to repay the favor by throwing a shoe. That’s a sure sign that the hate isn’t nearly as pure as it was back then. But like all New York-Boston rivalries, it’s less about If, but about When. The Rangers are rebuilding, the Bruins entering a period of change. All it’ll ever take is one especially bad playoff series between these two to start all this nonsense right up again.

And personally speaking, I think it’s probably gonna flare up quicker than you realize. I for one will go full Cato the Elder on the Rangers if Tony DeAngelo decides he wants to make one of his very bad tweets about the Bruins. Ceterum autem censeo Venetiis esse delendam at the end of every article without fail.