In the late 60’s, the midst of the era where the Big Bad Bruins and their fans terrorized teams visiting the band box known as the Boston Garden, an award emerged…the 7th Player Award. It was to be given to the player who performed above and beyond expectation – most would say it was given to the lunchpail guy, the player who pulled on his sweater and did the dirty work that wouldn’t always show up in the box score, but did not escape the eye of the blue collar fans sitting high above the Garden ice. Some cynical fans called it a “popularity contest”, but not in the way the common fan might think. I mean how cold it be a popularity contest when Bobby Orr, John Bucyk, Gerry Cheevers, and Phil Esposito never won it? In the terms often uttered today, those guys were expected to be the best players, and play like the best players. It is not to say that Orr wasn’t among the most beloved and appreciated players to ever don the black and gold, but he was expected to be a god, and it is tough to exceed those expectations.
The tone for this award was set for decades with the early winners, Ed Westfall, Johnny “Pie” McKenzie, Fred Stanfield, Derek Sanderson, Dallas Smith, and the only co-recipients: Carol Vadnais and Don Marcotte. Those were the guys that did the dirty work, doled out big hits, played stay-at-home defense, and truly were the unsung heroes of the glory days of the B’s. In the 80’s the only “big name” to win the award was Cam Neely, but that was before he became “SeaBass”. The award was still clearly defined as a people’s choice award with Randy Burridge (85-86 & 88-89), Keith Crowder and Mike O’Connell defining the era. In 1982-83 netminder Pete Peeters became the first Bruins’ goalie to be recognized with the award.
TV-38 was the home of the Bruins and it was only fitting that Fred Cusick present the award on behalf of the fans. He was the voice and conscious of the Bruins fans, and always seemed to be keenly aware and willing to educate young fans on the Bruins identity. Working alongside former players like John Pierson and Derek Sanderson, Cusick had well earned the respect of both the fans and the Bruins players for his knowledge and appreciation of both perspectives.
The late 1980’s and early 90’s saw a Bruins’ resurgence, but fans seemed to turn away from tradition awarding the 7th Player Award to Vladimir Ruzicka in 1991-92. However, the gritty defenseman Don Sweeney, who would have skated nicely alongside 7th Players Gary Doak (1966-67) and Dallas Smith (1972-73) renewed the tradition of appreciating the play of those who allowed others to shine. The heroic play of Neely in 1993-94 made him a slam dunk for the award, as no hockey fan could deny that playing 2 games, 50 games or 80 games Neely would find a way to exceed any and all expectations, even playing on one leg.
Then something strange happened in the mid-90’s and into the lockout. Perhaps it was the departure of Neely and the team’s struggle to find their identity, but award recipients Blaine Lacher (94-95), Kyle McLaren (95-96) and Byron Dafoe (98-99) typified the B’s of that era. Nothing against these players, but in the rich history of the Bruins those are not names of players who define what it means to be a Bruin. After the lockout the Bruins began anew, and scrappy forward Mike Knuble (02-03)was truly a worthy recipient of the 7th Player Award. His workmanlike style of play was reminiscent of Burridge, Keith Crowder (84-85) and John Carter (88-89).
The last four seasons have seen the Bruins emerge from the ashes of the post lockout rebuilding effort. As is the case with almost any rebuilding effort there are growing pains, and a frustrated fan base with low expectations. A journeyman between the pipes rose from relative obscurity and put on his hardhat and went to work for the Bruins. It is not surprising that Tim Thomas won the 7th Player Award back to back in 2005-06 and 06-07. He was not, and is still not the Bruins’ most worshipped player. Even in winning the Vezina trophy last season he had more detractors among his own fan base than he did across the NHL. However, Thomas embodies the founding tradition of the award – he puts his head down, bows his back, and plays. He may not always be successful, but he will always give an effort that should be matched by the most skilled and talented of his teammates. In 2007-08 a young player who many expected to need additional seasoning burst upon the scene, bringing with him the nostalgia of a previously unheralded power forward. Milan Lucic is a fan favorite, but few can deny that when he brought the thunder to the Hub in his rookie season that he far exceeded the expectations of all. In one of the most successful seasons in over two decades another young player pushed his way into the white hot spotlight in the Hub. He exhibited vision and seemed to manipulate space and time on his way to centering one of the most consistently dangerous lines in the league. He was overlooked in the rookie/sophomore all-star selection despite being one of the league’s top +/- players, and his quiet understated demeanor and two-way game was the stuff typified by winners Steve Kasper (80-81) and Barry Pederson ( 81-82). In a year when arguably most players exceeded expectations, David Krejci’s efforts last season did not go underappreciated by the Bruins faithful.
So this season, a year when so many Bruins have been plagued by injury or flat-out seemed to be crushed by the expectations to repeat their performance of a year ago, who should represent this team and the tradition of the 7th Player Award? I would say that a season when the team is flying high, it is hard to wrong when singling out a player for quietly toiling behind the scenes. However, in a roller coaster year such as this one, there is often frustration and fans can be quick to point to a single “bright spot”; however this award was mean to be bestowed upon a bedrock, not a shooting star.
The 7th Player Award is steeped in tradition, and it is important for fans to embrace the tradition of this Original 6 franchise by recognizing the player/players who have represented themselves in the way that Bruins fans have come to expect from their team. There has only been one time in the history of the award that there have been co-winners (73-74) and this season I could endorse something similar. My vote would be for co-recipients Mark Recchi and Patrice Bergeron.
For Recchi, no Bruin would appreciate the gravity of this award more, he has embraced wearing the Black and Gold, and going back to his remarkably gutsy performance in the playoffs last season, through his tireless efforts this season, he is an ideal recipient. He never fails to give anything less than total effort every shift, and his diving effort to score on Saturday, with the team already up 4-0 over the Flames is a clear demonstration that he plays every shift as if it his last.
However, I have never heard more vitriol from the Bruins fans than I did from the “haters” when Bergeron began his comeback from a near career ending concussion last season. The so called “fans” who swore he would never contribute to the team, and certainly was the most overpaid man on the roster made my blood boil. The haters deserve to eat a heaping plate of crow as this season there is little doubt that Bergy is back! He is one of the NHL’s top face-off men and he’s also a critical component to the Bruins’ league leading penalty kill, while also among the team’s scoring leaders. He may wear the “A” but he leads with the character of a captain on the ice and in the community. He is cut of the same cloth as Ed Westfall (68-69) and Fred Stanfield (69-70) and while he may not be the Bruins’ premier scoring threat, he has evolved into a complete player and one that understands what it means to pull on the Bruins sweater.
I know there are “sexier” picks for the 7th Player Award, but this was not an award designed to go to the flavor of the year. This award demonstrates the fans’ appreciation for the sacrifices a player makes over an entire season. It is NOT a popularity contest, it is deeply rooted in the hardhat wearing, lunchpail carrying, balcony brawling tradition of the Bruins. There are no two finer representatives of true Boston Bruins this season than Recchi and Bergeron. In a season where some players failed to meet expectations, and left it to be shouldered by others, reward the two who stepped up when the team needed them the most. Recognize Recchi and Bergeron with the 7th Player Award, it is the purest form of our appreciation for their efforts and it is an award that stands the test of time.
A complete listing of Bruins 7th Player Award Recipients can be found at: http://icehockey.wikia.com/wiki/Seventh_Player_Award
About the Author: NHL Blogger, a fan of the Boston Bruins for 40 years, mom to the famous/notorious Bruins dog blogger, The Pup. The Pup is a savvy hockey dog in search of cookies (the jar is on the top shelf).