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Conference Final

Bruins-Hurricanes Eastern Final has Wesley, Marty Howe torn

Former defensemen experienced each side of rivalry while playing in Boston, Hartford

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

As an alumnus of the Boston Bruins and Hartford Whalers, and finally a Stanley Cup winner with the Carolina Hurricanes during a 20-season NHL career, retired defenseman Glen Wesley will have a few proverbial dogs in the fight when the Bruins and Hurricanes meet in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday at TD Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

But ask Wesley to pick an allegiance and you'll discover what it's like to try to nail Jell-O to a wall.

"For me to be politically correct, I should say I hope that they both do well," the 50-year-old said with a chuckle on Tuesday. "It's hard for me to root for one team against the other. How about this? I just hope they beat up on each other."

That Wesley today is a development coach with the St. Louis Blues helps to explain his sitting on the fence. Just imagine the conflict of emotions should his current employer, which will play either the San Jose Sharks or Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Final, advance to the Stanley Cup Final to face either the Bruins, his first NHL team, or the Hurricanes, his last.

Wesley arrived in the NHL in 1987 with the Bruins, who had selected him in the first round of the draft (No. 3) that spring. He played his first seven seasons in Boston before being traded to the Whalers on Aug. 26, 1994.

Three seasons in Hartford were followed by six more in Carolina after the team relocated in 1997 and became the Hurricanes. Then came Wesley's brief rental to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the spring of 2003 before he returned to the Hurricanes that summer as a free agent. He spent his final four NHL seasons in Carolina and was part of the 2006 Stanley Cup championship team.

"When you play for two different organizations, both have a big piece of your heart," said Wesley, a fan favorite with the Hurricanes whose No. 2 was retired in 2009 following 729 games in a Carolina jersey.

"Boston is an Original Six franchise. It's a great sports town, a lot of tradition and history there. Carolina was a brand-new organization. We built it from the ground up when we moved there, leaving Hartford and really starting over, meeting the fans and introducing them to the game. The Stanley Cup is a big piece of it for me, so asking me who I'll be cheering for is a very, very difficult question to answer."

Defenseman Marty Howe, one of three sons of the late Hall of Fame icon Gordie Howe, played 119 games during five NHL seasons with the Whalers from 1979-80 through 1984-85, as well as 78 while suiting up for the Bruins in 1982-83. Ask him who he'll be cheering for and he'll say Boston -- with an asterisk.

"I'd like to see the Bruins win," the 65-year-old said. "But Boston seems to be pulling a rabbit out of their hat every game, and usually that ends after a while. I'm just hoping it goes seven games, that's all."

The Bruins and Whalers, the latter having arrived in the NHL from the World Hockey Association, were natural rivals during the Whalers' time in Hartford from 1979-80 through 1996-97. The teams were close enough geographically, if sometimes not competitively, that their passionate fan bases could travel easily to the other's arena.

It wasn't the venomous rivalry of, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, or the Montreal Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques, before the Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche. But the Bruins versus the Whalers, a turnpike drive between their cities, still had some spice.

Marty Howe arrived in the NHL with the Whalers in 1979-80, when the New England Whalers were one of four teams from the absorbed into the League. He played his first season with his brother Mark and their father Gordie, the latter in his 26th and final NHL season.

Marty played 31 games for the Whalers through 1981-82 before he was traded to Boston on Oct. 1, 1982. He played 78 games for the Bruins in 1982-83, then was traded back to Hartford on Sept. 29, 1983, finishing his NHL career by playing two more seasons with the Whalers.

"Our team wasn't that good when I was first playing in Hartford," Howe recalled Tuesday. The Whalers' only trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs during his five seasons was a sweep in the best-of-5 Preliminary Round at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in 1980.

"When we locked up with Montreal, the only reason the game would be close until the third period is because they really didn't care," he said. "Then they'd score four and it would be over with. Whereas Boston would score four in the first period, then glide through it.

"We weren't something that either of them would get fired up for or worry about. But playing for the Bruins was fun because they were an Original Six team. You were proud to put the uniform on; it had history and the (dressing) room was crazy."

Howe played six games for the Whalers during the 1979-80 regular season, then was in the lineup for all three games during the 1980 playoffs. He cherishes his sole NHL postseason goal, which came at the Montreal Forum in an 8-4 loss in Game 2.

"If you ever find a picture of it, you'll see that Gordie ran the netminder (Denis Herron)," he joked. "Someone bumped Gordie and he just flew into the goalie."

It was the third goal for the Whalers that night. Gordie scored their fourth and the last of his 68 NHL playoff goals, assisted by Mark, with 6:01 to play.

The first of Marty Howe's two regular-season NHL goals came with the Bruins -- "Someone probably ran the goalie on that one, too," he joked. His second came with the Whalers during his final NHL season.

Wesley retired in 2008, having played 1,457 games and scored 537 points (128 goals, 409 assists) with a plus-66 rating. Back home in Utah this week, he will watch the Bruins-Hurricanes series with divided loyalties, recalling the passions of an earlier era, Boston and Hartford always an entertaining game.

"It was fun to be a part of," Wesley said. "You always knew going into the games that it was going to be a very difficult atmosphere if you were in the other team's building."

Then, with a laugh: "And there were probably a few fights in the stands too."

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