Video: Johnny Bucyk served as captain of 'Big Bad Bruins'
"'Good,' they'll say. 'That means you're going to have a good game.' And they go away laughing."
The Bruins captain for five seasons, Bucyk had a great many "lousy" nights - and a great many good games - during his 23-season NHL career, 21 of them for Boston.
He had quite a few laughs of his own, too, with the rollicking Big Bad Bruins, two-time Stanley Cup champions of the early 1970s who rose from a prolonged residence in the League's basement to become one of hockey's marquee teams.
Games: 1,540 | Goals: 556 | Assists: 813 | Points: 1,369
And while he may have been overshadowed by his more celebrated Boston teammates like Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson, when Bucyk retired in 1978, he was the franchise's all-time leader in goals (545), assists (794), points (1,339) and games played (1,436), and he was among the top five all-time for goals (556), assists (813), points (1,369) and games (1,540).
Born May 12, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression, Bucyk had a childhood in Edmonton that was further burdened by the death of his father when he was only 11, forcing his mother to take a factory job paying 36 cents an hour.
His earliest hockey sticks were old broomsticks, his pads were magazines and catalogs and his skates were always hand-me-downs, compromising his mobility as a young player. He was big, could shoot, pass and body check and played a smart game, but skating came hard. Yet his inordinate desire always impressed his youth coaches and inspired them to work on improving that skill.
"He was so damn awkward," his Edmonton Oil Kings junior coach, former NHL goalie Ken McAuley, told writer Stan Fischler. So McAuley quietly arranged offseason lessons with a figure skater, something unheard of in 1953, and Bucyk soon could hold his own. A strong season followed with 29 goals and 67 points in 33 games in 1953-54 and earned Bucyk a pro contract with the Western Hockey League's Edmonton Flyers who, like the Oil Kings, were part of the Detroit Red Wings organization.
A few noteworthy things transpired in Bucyk's lone full season with the Flyers. First, he played for a time on a line with center Bronco Horvath and right wing Vic Stasiuk with some success. Bucyk's 30 goals and 88 points earned WHL top rookie honors. And Horvath gave Bucyk an enduring and endearing nickname, "Chief." Bucyk explained in his 1972 autobiography the name's genesis was Horvath's admiration for how Bucyk used his stick like a tomahawk to fight for pucks along the boards.
The Red Wings summoned Bucyk for the 1955 playoffs and Detroit won the Stanley Cup that spring. But he never dressed for a game and his name wasn't engraved on the Cup. Still, the Red Wings presented him with a championship ring, and when they invited him to training camp in the fall, "It was just unbelievable," he wrote. However, the Red Wings were stocked with left wings and Bucyk, while appearing in 104 games over two seasons, saw only spot duty in Detroit.
Then Bruins general manager Lynn Patrick devised a plan. Stasiuk was already playing for Boston and Patrick had claimed Horvath's rights during the 1957 Intra-league Draft. Patrick was aware of how well the three had clicked in Edmonton. So with Detroit seeking to reacquire goalie Terry Sawchuk from Boston, Patrick asked for Bucyk in return. It was a deal the Red Wings wished they never had made.
The trio, together again, was soon dubbed the Uke Line on the presumption that all were of Ukrainian ancestry. Horvath was actually Hungarian, but no one seemed to care, especially when the line began to jell again, with Horvath the scorer, Stasiuk the digger and Bucyk, who could do both.
Bucyk became a 20-goal scorer, Horvath scored 30 and the crowd loved Stasiuk's hustle. The Ukes became Boston Garden favorites, giving the Bruins an identity they lacked since the 1930s and '40s glory days. The Ukes played together for nearly four seasons and lived together in a Boston apartment. And they spent a lot of time together on the road.
"We had more arguments at home than we did on the ice," Bucyk said. "But it was good because we sat down and talked about what we did wrong and what we could do to improve ourselves. We actually got along well and had a lot of fun."
But fun didn't win games. After two playoff seasons, going to the Final once, Boston missed the postseason eight straight years.
Bucyk became a consistent scorer, always around or over 20 goals, a very good passer and a ferocious hitter. He was especially adept at doling out hip checks deep in the offensive zone, in the corners and around the net, forcing turnovers on unsuspecting puck carriers.
"I played most of my career at 220 pounds, one of the heaviest players on the ice," Bucyk told Chris McDonnell in "For the Love of Hockey." "I threw my weight around and always played a physical game. The other players respected me because they knew if they had their head down, I'd hit them pretty hard. I just tried to stay out of the penalty box."
His physical character fit perfectly into the club that Boston began assembling in the mid-'60s. Bucyk, the Bruins captain for the 1966-67 season (and again from 1973-77), had to acclimate Orr, the teenage sensation who Bucyk made sure felt included from the first day of training camp.
"Johnny was a great help to me making the transition from junior hockey to the pros," Orr wrote in his autobiography. "He came to work every day and set the standard with his level of play. He always set the bar high for us, and it made you want to follow suit and set your own example for others. There can be no doubt that his leadership was a key part of the success the Bruins would enjoy in the years that followed."
Trades and call-ups helped build Boston into a stronger club that could play any style and win. And when new coach Harry Sinden teamed Bucyk with center Fred Stanfield and right wing John McKenzie in 1967, he created what many called the NHL's best second line, playing behind Esposito, Ken Hodge and Ron Murphy (who gave way to Wayne Cashman).
"We had three [scoring] lines, we had a great penalty killing unit, we had very strong defense, we had a very physical team, we had the fighters, we had the finesse players, we had such great team spirit, the players just stuck together," Bucyk said on the TV series "Hockey's Greatest Legends," as he ticked off the club's attributes. "We were called the Big Bad Bruins because we were big and bad and tough."
It would all culminate in Orr's famous 'flying' goal against the St. Louis Blues in Boston Garden to win the 1970 Stanley Cup. Minutes later, NHL President Clarence Campbell presented Bucyk with the large silver trophy, the "biggest thrill" of his career. The Bruins would win a second Cup in 1972, defeating the New York Rangers in six games.
In addition to his leadership, Bucyk's play proved essential to Boston's success. In 1967-68, boosted by his work on Boston's incredible power play, Bucyk scored 30 goals at age 32.
With the man-advantage, Bucyk routinely parked off the left post, scoring goals with his quick release and strong backhand shot and making deft passes, complementing Esposito's great hands and bull-like work in the slot, the howitzer-shooting of Hodge on the right side and dynamic-skating point men in Orr and Stanfield.
He scored 31 goals in 1969-70, 14 on the power play, which scored 81 times. In 1970-71, Bucyk scored 22 on the power play, a close second to Esposito, who scored 25 goals with the man-advantage.
"He made the Boston power play work from the corner because he could thread the needle with the pass," Rangers defenseman Brad Park said on "Hockey's Greatest Legends." "He could put it through your skates, under your stick, over your stick, and he'd just put that big body between you and puck, protect it, shovel it off. He was a key ingredient on the power play."
The 1970-71 season was Bucyk's best; he scored 51 goals to earn a First Team All-Star selection. He also became the fifth player in NHL history to top 50 goals in a season. He finished with 116 points. Esposito, Orr, Bucyk and Hodge were the League's top four scorers. Bucyk also continued his robust game but only drew eight penalty minutes, winning the first of two Lady Byng trophies.
"Most people think that the only reason a player wins the Lady Byng is because he is gentlemanly," Bucyk told writer Kevin Shea, "but I had the ability to play physical and not draw penalties."
Bucyk was 35 years old when he scored 51 goals, but he kept on going, with seasons of 32, 40, 31, 29, and - at age 40 - 36 goals. Defenders would be flummoxed for years trying to contend with him.
"Johnny just parked himself in front of the net and you couldn't move him," said Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, who was hardly a weakling, and whose own NHL career began when Bucyk was 37. Even then, the Chief seemed unstoppable.
Bucyk ended his career at age 42. He had 16 seasons of 20 or more goals, seven 30 and above. Three years before he retired, in October 1975, Bucyk scored his 500th career goal during his 21st NHL season, the seventh player to reach that plateau. Boston's four other left wings - Wayne Cashman, Don Marcotte, Dave Forbes and Hank Nowak - gave him a gold medal with '500' on it.
"That really touched me," Bucyk said. "I wear it almost every day. It's not from the League or from the team, but from the four guys who were fighting for my job. I'll never forget that gesture."
It symbolized the esteem Bucyk evoked in his teammates.
"They had a team that lived hard, lived high, and Johnny was the guy who was there to get them to bed on time, get them up on time, on the bus on time," Toronto journalist Frank Orr said on "Hockey's Greatest Legends." "That was the influence he had on that team. He was an ideal captain. The players all respected him."
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