Johnny Bucyk is bullish on his Boston Bruins, hopeful that the team for which he starred will make some noise in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — no matter that TD Garden won’t be quite as raucous as it would be during a normal postseason.
“We’re starting to jell,” said Bucyk. “Those new guys are helping us. We’ve had a lot of injuries but guys are coming back and hopefully everyone will be healthy come the playoffs.”
Those “new guys” are forwards Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar, who were acquired from the Buffalo Sabres before the NHL Trade Deadline on April 12, and defenseman Mike Reilly, who was acquired from the Ottawa Senators the previous day. Since the trade deadline, the Bruins are 9-2-0, fourth in the eight-team MassMutual East Division, one point behind the third-place New York Islanders and eight points ahead of the fifth-place New York Rangers. The top four teams in the division reach the playoffs, with the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Islanders already having clinched a berth.
In normal times, Bucyk would be holding court in a packed Bruins alumni suite on game night. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the legendary two-time Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Famer is hanging out with a group of no more than six, not the usual 30 or more that’s made up of fellow Bruins and their guests.
Johnny Bucyk with the Bruins in the early 1960s (left) and mid-1970s.
“A very small group and no (food and beverage) services, but I’ve been to every home game this season,” Bucyk said Thursday, a few hours before the Bruins’ 5-2 victory against the Sabres. “A lot of folks haven’t been coming because of the hassle, but if you come one time and get to know the system, it’s easy.”
Bucyk has been the unofficial mayor of this arena suite for years, sitting in the front row to the far left, joyfully swapping lies with fellow alumni, posing for photos and signing autographs for their star-struck guests. The pandemic was not going to keep the Bruins icon known as Chief from his perch overlooking the rink.
Now, it’s only Bucyk, Bruins alumni coordinator Karen Wonoski and two or three others in the suite. That was probably a good thing during a game in early April when a shot by Bruins forward Trent Frederic glanced off the crossbar, deflected off the safety screen behind the net and ricocheted into the sixth-floor suite between the two.
Johnny Bucyk crowds the crease of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower in 1959, the puck over Bower’s head.
For the Bruins’ first 11 games this season, TD Garden was virtually empty. Since March 23, the building opened to 12-percent capacity, crowds have been in the range of 2,100; from May 10, when capacity is increased to 25 percent, about 4,700 fans will be in the seats.
“Even just a little over 2,000 fans can make quite a noise,” Bucyk said.
One of the most beloved Bruins of all time will turn 86 on May 12. Bucyk played 1,540 NHL games between 1955-78, his first two years with the Detroit Red Wings before arriving in Boston on June 10, 1957, traded for legendary goalie Terry Sawchuk.
He would serve as captain for the Big, Bad Bruins in their 1970 and 1972 Stanley Cup championship seasons, scoring 1,369 points (556 goals, 813 assists) during his 23-season career, the oldest player in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season (35 when he scored 51 in 1970-71).
Johnny Bucyk chases the puck in front of Toronto goalie Bruce Gamble during a 1960s game at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The Bruins have been Bucyk’s family for the past 64 years and he’s never enjoyed them more, navigating TD Garden on an 11-month-old left hip. The joint replacement, necessary for a rugged forward whose hip check was a trademark, was delayed two months last year because of the pandemic. A follow-up a few weeks later “showed that my gall bladder was shot,” so he had it removed. It’s been clear sailing since, Bucyk happily reporting that today he’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“No problem at all,” Bucyk said. “They weren’t my first needles.”
Scheduled in the operating room this month will be his wife, Terri, for her sixth knee operation.
“I think she’s trying to catch Bobby Orr,” he joked of the iconic Bruins defenseman who counts his left knee surgeries somewhere between 17 and 21.
Johnny Bucyk with Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr (left) in Boston’s dressing room during the 1974-75 season.
These days, Bucyk is doing some work around home, cleaning up the yard and driving to an assistant’s house to pick up the fan mail that still arrives more than four decades after his final game. He and Terri expect to again make their annual cross-continent motorhome drive to their summer home in British Columbia, quarantining for two weeks as required when they cross the border into Canada.
“It’ll take me that long to open the place anyway,” Bucyk said with a laugh.
For now, he’s loving Bruins hockey, settled in the suite that, when safe, he’s eager to see packed once more.
“It’s still fun, the games have been exciting,” Bucyk said. “And I’ll keep going until we’ve won the Stanley Cup or are no longer in it.”
Photos: Karen Wonoski and HHoF Images