BOSTON - Standing before the Garden faithful who were witness to his trickery and craftiness, Rick Middleton looked up at the banner with his name and number slowly being raised into the TD Garden rafters forever. It was official. No. 16 would never be worn by a Boston Bruins player again.
With his family on either side, he couldn't help but throw his arms up over his head in elation at the moment.
"It really is hard to put into words," said Middleton. "I've had four months to think about it, and I hate repeating myself, but honestly, I believe it is the biggest honor that certainly a retired athlete can get in his career."
And for the biggest honor of his career, Middleton made sure those closest to him were in attendance.
On the circular carpet at center ice sat fellow Bruins legends Ray Bourque, John Bucyk, Cam Neely and Terry O'Reilly, whose numbers have previously been enshrined in Bruins history. Middleton, who was fondly nicknamed Nifty by former Bruins goaltender Gerry Cheevers, played with all four of them during his 12-year career with the Bruins.
Video: NYI@BOS: Bruins retire Rick Middleton's No. 16
Middleton succeeded O'Reilly as team captain in 1985 - a responsibility he shared with Bourque - when O'Reilly became the Bruins coach for Nifty's final two seasons.
During his speech, Middleton stressed the importance coaching had on his career and life, which is was enforced by the fact that his junior coach Frank Miller and first Bruins coach Don Cherry were sitting in the spotlight with him.
"From bantam to midget for three years, Frank Miller," said Middleton, "And he did a lot for me and my career then. He helped me go up the ladder in order to play junior hockey. You've got to climb that ladder. You've got to get to the next level. And really him and Don, that's why they're here, [they] were the two most important coaches that I had. You've got to have good coaching, you really do, especially when you're younger."
Cherry said a few words during Middleton's speech that brought levity to the crowd and showed the strength of their bond all these years later.
Middleton was also sure to thank all of his old friends that have passed that had such an important influence on his life, as well as his newer friends: the 2002 U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team, which won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Four of his players were present on the ice to support their former coach with the gold medal in tow.
"It came out of left field," said Middleton. "And I was almost 50 years old, and I knew nothing about sled hockey… It was a road that was so weird because I've always been in the able-bodied hockey world, and this world was totally different, for good and bad.
"We fought through it over 9/11 and right into Salt Lake City as the last seed, and we ended up winning the gold medal. As a matter of fact, we're writing a movie on it right now.
"To have these guys here tonight, or some of them - I wish they all could have made it - but it's just great to see that these guys came out for me."
Middleton, who turns 65 next week, played 12 seasons with the Bruins from 1976-88, scoring 402 goals and tallying 496 assists for 898 points in 881 games. During the ceremony, the current Bruins team and coaching staff sat on the Bruins bench, all wearing No. 16 jerseys.
While hockey today looks a lot different than the era with no helmets and fewer regulations, Nifty says a few elements have stood the test of time.
"Then I got a chance to play at the beginning of the new era," said Middleton, "And the team was totally different. The teammates were different, but the one thing that remained as a Bruin is that dedication to winning. It didn't matter who the coach was - maybe because Terry was still on the team, and then he became a coach. He always raised the bar for the guys. Nobody ever wanted to let each other down. That's why we were successful."
The Bruins defeated the Islanders, 2-1, in a shootout later in the night, the cherry on top of an unforgettable night for Nifty.
In the words of Cam Neely - welcome to the club, Rick.
Video: Middleton addresses media before number retirement