Middleton - Bruins slickster
The program lists him as a 5 ft., 11 in. right wing, but in reality he may as well be a 9 1/2-foot slinky with the all-encompassing reach of an octopus and the springiness afoot of a kangaroo. Who is he?
Why, that could be none other than the Boston Bruins' brilliant skater, stickhandler, and scorer, Rick Middleton. The man is a phenomenon on skates whose playmaking is as slick and photograph glossy as the ice surface he plays on.
Rick, now starting his eighth National Hockey League season, has been known since his teen-age years for the exciting, highly charged quality of his play. In 1973, at the age of 19, the Toronto, Ontario native was the New York Rangers' No. 1 draft pick - not bad for a young kid just out of high school.
During his first year he played for New York's farm team in Providence and was named Rookie of the Year in the American Hockey league. This set the stage for a dramatic NHL debut, but after a tremendous start he broke a leg and was out for nearly half of the season.
Nonetheless, he managed to score 22 goals and accumulate 40 points, a figure he increased to 50 the next season. Then, in a deal finagled by Bruins' General Manager Harry Sinden, he was traded to Boston where he has since resided in joyous comfort, if such a thing is possible for a hockey player.
Perhaps it should be said that Bruin fans have experienced joyous comfort. While many of his teammates grind and groan under the strain of carrying out the ordinary, Middleton performs show stopping acrobatics with skates, stick and puck.
In one recent game against Hartford, for instance, he took a bad pass in his skate, and with a slick little move, ushered the puck onto his stick and fired it behind a bewildered opposing netminder. ''Shadows of Bobby Orr?'' the nostalgic Bruin fan asks. Perhaps so.
Like Orr, he is chameleon-like in the way he uses his body and speed. Sometimes he will start slowly in his own zone, weaving through center ice with a series of shifts, like a sidewinder preparing to strike. Then suddenly he bursts around the defenseman and hurtles toward the goal, unleashing a slapshot which renders the opposing netminder helpless.
His dynamic playmaking and prolific scoring make Rick unquestionably one of the most exciting players in the league. Teammate Brad Park insists that he ''is the best one-on-one player in hockey.'' Team captain Wayne Cashman exclaims, ''The man is invisible. They try to check him and he vanishes!''
Because Middleton is so difficult to contain many defensemen are forced to bend the rules. Hence, the ability to ''draw the penalty'' is yet another asset found in Middleton's game. It is a significant aspect which goes unnoticed by the average fan, but its impact is most definately felt on the ice.
And as Sinden points out, ''Rick is one of the most productive players on the team. Every time you turn around he is on a five- or six-game scoring streak.''
In the last few weeks of the 1980-81 season, for example, Middleton scored 17 goals in 20 games to finish with career highs of 43 goals and 104 points, good for 10th in the NHL scoring race. He also became the highest scoring Bruins player since Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito dominated the league in 1973-74 with 135 and 127 points, respectively.
These statistics may well explain Boston's strong resurgence in the latter half of the season, after its worst start in 15 years. Most definitely, Rick was the catalyst during the drive which carried the team to a 37-30-13 record and second place in its division.
But in the playoffs the Minnesota North Stars, who had been burned frequently by Middleton in the past, were able to shut him down. They limited Rick to three assists - and eliminated the Bruins in three games.
This fall Middleton was selected to play on the Canadian National team in the Canada Cup series. Team Canada coach Scotty Bowman felt Middleton was an invaluable element ''because he can do so many things''.
He then got his glacial high-wire act off to a flying start in regular season NHL play. In the first 15 games he notched 23 points and scored an average of a goal a game.
A goal a game is considered good production for a line of three players, let alone a solo effort by one. Yet Rick is not a one-man show. In fact, linemate Peter McNab is right behind him in scoring with 21 points.
The Bruins have plenty of competition in the rugged Adams division, which under this year's realignment now features the perennially powerful Montreal Canadiens as well as the defending champion Buffalo Sabres. So far they're right in the thick of the battle for first place, however. And with ''Nifty'', as he is referred to by his teammates because of his disco dance dexterity on hockey skates, stutter-stepping his way toward another high-scoring campaign, they expect to stay there.