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Awrey symbol of grit for Bruins alumni at Stanley Cup Final

Overcame back injury to play on 1970, '72 champions, cheers on Game 1 win against Blues

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

BOSTON -- There's a photo, among a great many, on a ninth-floor TD Garden wall outside the Boston Bruins alumni suite. It shows three men hugging the Stanley Cup in 1970, and two long-time ushers were stumped on the third face.

There was defenseman Don Awrey on the left, trainer John "Frosty" Forristall in the middle, and …

"Ron Murphy," Awrey said Monday within a nanosecond of seeing the photo. 

Then, with a wink to the ushers: "Anyone else on the wall you need help with?"

Awrey, 75, was one of a dozen or so Bruins alumni in their suite for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, a 4-2 Boston victory against the St. Louis Blues. Teammates or not, sometimes a generation apart, they were all strongly bonded by the black and gold.

Game 2 is in Boston Wednesday (8 p.m.; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

In his usual seat at the far end was Johnny Bucyk, the 84-year-old Bruins legend who played 21 of his 23 NHL seasons here between 1957-78, a Stanley Cup champion in 1970 and 1972.

"This man used to block a lot of shots," Bucyk said, Awrey having slipped into a seat beside him. "Don played very solid defensively. He blocked more shots than anyone I can recall. He was good at that, he moved the puck well and he wasn't afraid to go into the corners."

That Awrey played even a single NHL game is testament to his resolve and strength of his body and mind.

A painful back grew worse as he played high-school football in his native Kitchener, Ontario. Surgery to fuse three vertebrae confined him for three weeks to a Stryker frame, a device that sandwiches a patient between two pieces of material and can rotate him almost as if on a barbecue rotisserie.

"I was able to continue, turn pro and have a good NHL career," Awrey said. "They weren't sure if I'd ever be able to play hockey again but I had a great doctor who fixed me up. Who knew back then whether I'd be able to play again? It just happened."

Not only did Awrey recover, he developed a physical, hard-hitting, shot-blocking game with major-junior Niagara Falls that would be coveted by the Bruins, who signed him for the 1963-64 season. 

"Look at my junior stats," Awrey said, shrugging. "I didn't really play a physical game, I was a defensive guy who carried the puck."

He played a decade for the Bruins, skating 543 games between 1963-64 and 1972-73, regularly a defense partner for Bobby Orr and Ted Green and a part of Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and 1972. Awrey also played two games in the historic 1972 Summit Series pitting Canada against the Soviet Union.

An Oct. 5, 1973 trade shipped Awrey from the Bruins to the Blues, where he would play for a season and a small slice of a second. The trade baffled him then, if the economics are a little clearer to him now.

"I don't remember a lot about my time with the Blues," he said. "I was surprised to be traded but I'd just signed a five-year contract, so I guess the contract didn't sit well with someone."

The Blues traded Awrey to the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 28, 1974. With the Canadiens, he played 72 of 80 regular-season games in 1975-76, but without appearing in a postseason game, his name wasn't added to the Cup that year.  

"That's been fixed," he said with a grin. "I'm not on the Cup but I'm in the record book. The Canadiens played with pretty much only four defensemen that year -- Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and me."

Awrey's career finished with three more seasons, one each for the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Colorado Rockies.

He gets to very few Bruins games these days, running bus trips from his home in Fort Myers, Florida to take fans to Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning games.

Forty-six years after his last game with the Bruins, Awrey still bleeds black and gold, cherishing his time with Boston and especially two championships won here. There was a great togetherness with those teams, he and Bucyk agreed, players sticking up for one another without hesitation.

"If a fight started or if someone got into a scuffle, it wasn't one-on-one, five guys came in there to make sure our guy was all right," Awrey said. "If it was John Bucyk or Bobby Orr, one of us lesser players would maybe take the penalty rather than one of our stars."

He will find himself looking back on his NHL days and shake his head at how a young man who was confined to his bed with a career-threatening back injury could play more than 1,000 NHL games (979 regular season, 71 in the playoffs).

"I was able to stay healthy," Awrey said. "I never had to worry about my skating, it was always there for some reason or another. The way you practice is the way you play. I practiced hard. I don't think I brought a lot of talent to the table, but I had a good work ethic.

"I came to camp every year and somehow, I made the team. It was all about the team, never about me. You know, I can't believe I played in the NHL." 

Photos: Dave Stubbs; Hockey Hall of Fame

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