By John Bishop
It’s not easy to walk away from a job you love, especially when you are a relatively young professional, just 38 years old.
But what if you are 38 and your job description begins “Player, National Hockey League.”
Well, in that particular case, the truth is that you were on borrowed time even as you skated your first pro shift. Most players would feel lucky to even play ONE game.
For 17 years Tom Fitzgerald was a joy to watch. A hustler, a grinder, a mucker – let’s face it, a true Bruin
, even if he only played one year with the club.
But after seven NHL teams and 1097 regular season contests, Fitzgerald has traded in his Koho for a microphone, his shoulder pads for a suit jacket, and skates for wing tips. And, as per usual (think Cam Neely, Gord Kluzak, et al), NESN’s gain is New England hockey’s loss as Fitzgerald passed up a tryout offer with the club at the beginning of the week to take an analyst position with Bruin’s broadcast team.
In all, Fitzgerald played in only 71 games for the black and gold, but his status as a Bruin is firmly cemented and has been for a long time.
"I’m very proud to retire as a Boston Bruin," said Fitzgerald in a Sept. 12 press release. "I came to Boston with an agenda, which was to play here and live out a childhood dream. I did that and I’m very lucky and very fortunate. I took a lot of pride in wearing that sweater and I’m walking away a very happy man.”
Fitzgerald, like most New England hockey fans, was brought up wrapped in black and gold, and, from an early age, dreamed of playing at the Boston Garden.
Fitzgerald was preparing to bring his son to Syracuse for a youth hockey tournament when BostonBruins.com caught up with him.
Was he sad? Sure.
Was he certain that it was time to let it go? Yes.
Fitzgerald is ready to take his memories, especially those from his time with the Bruins, and look forward to a new career and much more time with his family and friends. After talking to him, however, you can tell that even though last year was a bittersweet, star-crossed affair, he will cherish every second he spent in employ of the B’s.
The Bruins have had a very special place in his heart, and the heart of all of his friends, from a very young age.
“[Growing up] I played a lot of street hockey…and one of my friends flooded his backyard to make a rink,” explained Fitzgerald via cell phone. “We always dreamed that we were players from the Bruins.”
Did he ever think he would be a Bruin, instead of pretending to be Gerry Cheevers or Bobby Orr?
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I wanted to play for Billerica High and that was really the extent of it.”
“Those were the guys I wanted to be…to play in front of 700 people at Billerica High.”
Laughing, Fitzgerald added: “I just wanted to get on Mini-One on One [shown in between periods on Bruins telecasts and filmed at a local rink].”
“It was huge even just to go to a Bruins game,” said Fitzgerald, still chuckling as he reminisced. “Taking the Trolley. Joe and Nemo’s across the street from the Garden. The Pizza!”
Just like his friends, Bruin dreams remained just that, dreams.
And as he played in the backyard or the street, he did what every child who picks up a hockey stick in New England does -- he mimicked his heroes.
“I was Phil Esposito, Bobby Miller, Rick Middleton…somebody different everyday,” he said. “I even had a Gerry Cheevers mask with all the stitches.”
As he grew older, the Bruins tough guys, Terry O’Reilly and Stan Jonathan, made a special place in this very tough player.
But there was one player whom everyone wanted to be – Bobby Orr.
“Bobby Orr is it,” said Fitzgerald. “I wanted to be number four.”
Obviously he did more than mimic those Bruins. Soon he became one of New England’s hockey heroes. From Austin Prep, to Providence College, he kept moving up the ladder.
Drafted by the New York Islanders in the first round of the 1986 draft, Fitzgerald began his icy journey by splitting his first couple of seasons between Springfield of the AHL and the Islanders. And along the way, he hoped he might get a chance to play in Boston.
“I remember [being a free agent] and saying to myself, â€˜Wouldn’t that be nice,’” explained Fitzgerald. “But I had to take the offers that were there…the timing just wasn’t right.”
But following the lockout the timing was finally right – even if, when all was said and done, the team’s results weren’t up to Bruin standards.
“Other than that, the good outweighed the bad,” he said. “I was happy just to put on that jersey.”
All in all, however, Fitzgerald is a content man, ready to move on.
“The NESN thing came up over the summer and it will keep me in the hockey loop,” said Fitzgerald. “I want to experience the family life…and do things I couldn’t do.
“When Peter [Chiarelli] called me…I was ready.”
Unfortunately, New England hockey fans might not be ready to say goodbye to one of their own.
Good luck Fitzy. And thanks.