The Boston Bruins Greatest Centers

(Photo Credits: Rich Gagnon/Getty Images)

By: Liz Rizzo | Follow me on Twitter @pastagrl88

With news (although not official just yet) that Captain Patrice Bergeron will likely return to the Boston Bruins, it’s no surprise how much the franchise has relied on the 18-year veteran. The importance of having a smart center and being strong down the middle is obviously needed to have a successful team (along with every other position). Today we take a look at the team’s greatest centers throughout their long-storied history-in no particular order:

1. PATRICE BERGERON

What more can be said about the legend that is Patrice Bergeron? A long-tenured veteran of the Boston Bruins, Bergeron personifies what it means to be a Bruin. A player who has garnered much respect from his colleagues and the entire league-is there even a question that his number will be raised to the rafters of the TD Garden?

Having won a record fifth Selke Award this past June, the Bruins’ longtime center has amassed an impressive list of numbers and broken records throughout his history with the team. His nomination as this year’s finalist for the award for the 11th straight year broke Wayne Gretzky’s record of being nominated for 10 consecutive years (1980-1989) for the Hart Trophy. His win also surpassed Hall of Fame forward Bob Gainey of the Montreal Canadiens.

According to Hockey Reference, Bergeron ended this past season having played 1,216 games with 400 goals, and 582 assists for 985 points. He scored his 400th career goal in his last regular-season appearance with a hat trick. Bergeron is the fourth player in team history to hit the 400-goal milestone, joining Johnny Bucyk (545 goals), Phil Esposito (459), and Rick Middleton (402).

Bergeron is fourth in regular-season points in Bruins history (982). He trails Bourque (1,506), Bucyk (1,339) and Esposito (1,012). 

2. MILT SCHMIDT

Boston’s famed “Kraut Line” featured the legendary Milt Schmidt centering with wingers (and boyhood friends) Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer. Both wingers signed with the Boston Bruins and met with then Bruins’ General Manager Art Ross insisting that they also invite Schmidt. After much persistence, he landed with the team and made his debut in 1936.

All three players hailed from Kitchner, Ontario, and had such closeness that it not only reflected in their personal lives, it made an impact on the ice. During the 1939-1940 season, Schmidt led the league in scoring with 52 points, while Dumart and Bauer were in second with 43 points a piece.

After returning home from serving in World War II, Schmidt did not lose his touch- 37 goals, 35 assists for 62 points during the 1946-47 campaign. Towards the end of the season, the Bruins’ defense suffered through many injuries, so much so that the centerman suggested he switch positions to defense. The story goes that Schmidt played such a great game that fans and management were calling for him to stay at that position, however, he was placed back at center and continued to be the team’s leader.

He earned the Hart Trophy in 1951 after producing 22 goals with 39 assists. Schmidt remained active with the team until 1955 when he was appointed head coach of a then-struggling Boston Bruins team up until 1962. He re-took the reigns in the middle of the 1962-63 season when head coach Phil Watson failed to revive the team.

Schmidt became the General Manager of the Bruins in 1966 and the team enjoyed two Stanley Cups during his tenure due largely to trades he made. The greatest accomplishment in his managerial career was the lop-sided historic deal he made with the Chicago Blackhawks that saw Bruins goalie Jack Norris, defenseman Gilles Marotte and center Pit Martin exchanged for Phil Esposito, Fred Stanfield, and Ken Hodge.

3. PHIL ESPOSITO

If there was any player in Bruins history that did it his way without any apologies it would be Phil Esposito or ‘Espo.” 717 goals, MVP awards, two Stanley Cups, and a list of other awards continuously land the centerman on the list of the greatest players in NHL history.

After a quiet start to his career in Chicago, Espo was traded to the Boston Bruins where he was given the opportunity to flourish with a team that was led by Bobby Orr. No longer playing in the shadow of former teammate Bobby Hull, Espo gained full confidence with puck handling and helped usher in the era of the “Big, Bad Bruins.”

In his first season with the B’s, Espo led the NHL with 43 assists. Alongside Ken Hodge and Ken Murphy, the trio recorded a line scoring record of 263 points and the centerman was among the first players to reach a 100-point plateau. The line record was soon broken by the new combo of Espo, Hodge, and Wayne Cashman. He was a First Team All-Star in 1969, 1971-1975, and led the league in scoring in 1969 and 1972-74. Espo is a two-time Stanley Cup winner (1970 and 1972).

Esposito is currently ranked second in all-time regular-season goals for Boston with 459 (behind only Johnny Bucyk’s 545). Esposito is tied for second with Patrice Bergeron in all-time Bruins playoff goals with 46. (Cam Neely’s has 55.) The center also holds the Boston record for most playoff hat-tricks with four, one of which was a four-goal game versus Toronto in 1969. He scored 20 shorthanded goals for Boston over his career.

Following a deal that shook the whole New England hockey world in 1975, Espo would be dealt to the New York Rangers in return for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, and Joe Zanussi. Throughout his colorful career, the centerman remains an integral part of the Bruins’ history and number seven hangs up in the rafters of the TD Garden.

“Phil could score from any angle. I once saw him split the enemy defense, fall to his knees and, while still on his knees sliding toward the net, put the puck in the top corner of the cage.”

Former Bruins’ Head Coach Don Cherry 1974-1979

4. BILL COWLEY

Stick handler extraordinaire Bill Cowley was often overshadowed by the “Kraut Line” nevertheless his grace and puck control was every bit as good as his teammates. His accomplishments earned him the Hart Trophy in 1941 and 1943. He led the league in scoring in 1941 and was chosen for the First All-Star Team in 1938, 1941, and 1943-44. He was a member of the 1939 and 1941 Stanley Cup Champions Bruins team.

Crowley was instrumental in the Bruins’1939 Stanley Cup win due to a change made by Coach Art Ross, who moved Crowley to center (a move made to thwart the New York Rangers). The plan was to have Crowley feed to his linemate Mel Hill as the Rangers would focus on winger Roy Conacher. It was a strategy that confused New York and gave the Bruins the win during the first round of the match-up.

(Photo Credits: Copyright (c) Leslie Jones.)

The B’s took three games however the Rangers made a comeback and tied the series at three games apiece. Game Seven would be played back in the old Boston Garden and went to three sudden-death overtimes. With seven minutes in, the craftiness of Crowley was significant in cementing the Bruins’ victory. After an initial shot by Conacher was stopped, Rangers goaltender Bert Gardiner flipped it expecting his defenseman to retrieve the puck. Cowley had other ideas. The center played the puck behind the net, feeding it to an unguarded Hill who then scored, winning the series 4-3.

After 11 seasons with the Bruins, he retired after the 1946-47 season and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968.

5. JEAN RATELLE

Highly respected. Classy. Dedicated to the game. An inspiration to his teammates (yes, it does sound like a certain present-day centerman). All qualities that every coach wants in every player and Jean Ratelle fit that mold. Yes, he did play more years with the Rangers, however, those who cover the sport know that the newly acquired center achieved his best while playing for Boston.

He may have found success at an older age, however, his contributions to the Black and Gold should not be overlooked. Ratelle had big shoes to fill after the departure of Phil Esposito nevertheless his skating style and skill won over the Boston media and fans.

“Others skate but Ratelle glides. Others arrive on the scene as if escorted by 17 motorcycle cops, but Ratelle is already there.”

Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan

Former Bruins Head Coach Don Cherry: ” …once he became a Bruin, Jean became the absolute the most perfect man to play my system…Jean was terrific at picking passes off in front of our net.”

“Jean was the man everyone wanted to be because he was able to maintain such peace in his life. He wasted no time being a jerk, going off on tangents like many of us did. He was totally devouted to his family and that’s all he needed to be happy.”

Fomer Bruins Captain Wayne Cashman

The newly acquired Bruin outscored his Ranger counterpart by 23 points during the 1975-76 season and scored over 100 points for the second time in his career (including the Playoffs). The following season Ratelle bested Espo by 14 points. Towards the end of their careers, Ratelle had an advantage over Esposito by 46 points.

At age 39, he still played with the same vigor and tenacity of a 24-year-old by still killing penalties, taking important face-offs, and working the power-play. He was well known as a gentlemanly player, finishing in the top five for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship and excellence nine times. Between the 1970 and 1978 seasons, he was in the top three six times and won the trophy twice.

“I was always impressed with Jean as both a player and a human being. He was very proficient in both areas.”

Former Bruins Team President Harry Sinden

He retired in 1981 and ended his career as the league’s sixth all-time leading scorer. In 1985, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and remained part of the Bruins organization, serving for four years as an assistant coach and then sixteen years as a scout.

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