May 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the Boston Bruins’ 1970 Stanley Cup championship.
With an all-for-one and one-for-all mentality, that Bruins squad captivated Beantown and New England, including actor and comedian Denis Leary, who grew up about an hour west in Worcester, Mass. A hockey-obsessed kid, Leary was just 12 when the likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson were tearing up the Boston Garden ice.
Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, NHL Network will a special, “The 1970 Bruins: Big, Bad & Bobby,” that takes viewers through the Bruins’ rise as they built a gritty, skilled team that captured the city’s first Stanley Cup in 29 years.
Sporting News caught up with Leary by phone to chat about the Bruins, his love of hockey and why this year’s team should just be anointed the 2019-20 champs.
(Editor’s note: The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
SPORTING NEWS: What was it about that 1970 team that made them so special? They just took over Boston.
DENIS LEARY: You know, it’s a combination of how good they were, because they were very [good and] . . . I’m glad they talked about it in the special because they were really, it wasn’t just Bobby [Orr]. Bobby was an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime type of player. But, you know, you’re talking about Esposito . . . Phil was an integral part of that team, not just as the voice of the team on camera quite often, but on the ice.
So these are iconic hockey guys, but the other thing was they were funny, they were camera-savvy, they were charismatic. They were sort of like, my brother used to say they were like the Rolling Stones of hockey. They were just so, they were like a pop culture phenomenon and not just in Boston, I mean, all over the hockey world. So I think that was a big part of it. There was sort of a rock ‘n’ roll element to that team.
And, but, you know, one of the things they barely touched on this in the special but I’ve seen in real life: They don’t want to talk about it, I know Bobby Orr doesn’t like to talk about it, but those guys not only have they stayed connected to that city, and a lot of them stayed there and raised their kids there and their families and everything. Beginning with that team, the stuff they’ve done for charity in Boston alone, just in Massachusetts, is astonishing and it started back then, when they were, you know, the big bad Bruins . . . like, every single one of those guys — Bobby Orr, Esposito, John McKenzie, Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers, Ken Hodge, these guys come to your events and not only do they come, they’re there all day taking pictures and signing autographs.
There’s a million stories about these guys, uncredited with no cameras around, going to visit hospitals, sick patients. That stuff that you can’t even document. You hear the stories but I’ve seen it at public events, and it’s nonstop, it’s all year . . . So that, in the end, the most impressive part of that team to me is just how much they’ve done in the community up there and how that’s been passed on to them, to the future and current Bruin players. It’s pretty amazing.
SN: Take us through that moment and watching that overtime [in Game 4 of the Final vs. the Blues]. What was it like as a kid watching that famous goal?
DL: It’s such a personal memory, but, it really is, the weather was nice that day. The windows in all the buildings and apartments were open. So, what I really remember is being inside, you know, watching the game and there was nobody outside during the game. And right after Bobby scored the winning goal you just heard this explosion, you know, sort of like a muted explosion because everybody was inside. But then people started yelling out the windows, then people started beeping their horns and then I would say within an hour, all the kids we were out in the street playing street hockey and recreating the goal for I don’t know how many hours we did that.
You got to remember, you would tape your stick the way Bobby Orr taped his stick. There was a book called “Orr on Ice” that came out shortly after that Cup win. And it was, it was a big picture book but it shows you how Bobby tied his skates and how Bobby taped his stick and what Bobby ate before [a game]. I mean, that was like a bible, you know what I mean? So, we were all thinking that we’re going to be Bobby Orr if we do all this stuff, forgetting the genetics of it.
When I think of it, I think about when I first introduced my mom to Bobby Orr, because my mom loved those Bruins as well. And she came to a charity event and she met Bobby Orr and it was like, it was literally like she was meeting Cary Grant. She was just like, “Oh, my God, Bobby, you’re still so handsome. Look at your hair. Oh, my God.” She just went on and on and on.
SN: You talked a little bit about it in the documentary about recreating the goal afterward. So, basically you had to get tripped.
DL: On concrete, by the way, so it’s in the street. So we were recreating the goal, everybody had to have a turn, being Bobby and Derek — those were the two guys who you were fighting over because nobody wanted to be the guy from the Blues or the goalie.
SN: Is it fair to say that team just kind of epitomizes Boston?
DL: I think they epitomized Boston. Boston as a hockey town has always loved gritty, tough players, right, like the blue-collar player. So that’s, that’s true. There’s a through-line from Bobby and the big bad Bruins right into the Bruins of the late ’70s with Terry O’Reilly, right into Cam Neely and Ray [Bourque’s] era, and even up to now. They appreciate great hockey but they love a team that’s tough and doesn’t back down. I think that’s very true.
And for some reason, you know, that sort of stayed. I think it reflects the fans, and what the fans love in that town, and I know it’s multi-generational.
I remember we had a practice for one of my charity games when the NHL was in a lockout, I forget which year that was, but Brendan Shanahan, who I had never met, [and] all the players were off and he came to the Garden for the skate the day before the event and Bobby Orr was there. [Orr] wasn’t skating, he was just on the bench, and Brendan knew he was going to be there. So we were already out practicing and somebody came and said, “Hey, Brendan Shanahan just got here. He’s in the locker room.” So I went back in and I said, “Hey, man, how you doing? Thank you so much for doing this.”
He’s like, “Oh, yeah, nice to meet you.” He goes — I mean this is a grown man and a massive NHL star — he goes, “Is Bobby Orr here?” And I go, “Yeah, he’s out on the bench.” He’s like, “Uh, can I meet him?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you can meet him.”
It was like watching a 14-year-old kid meet, you know, his hero. But at the time Brendan was like 37. It was crazy.
SN: What was it like for you the first time you met Bobby Orr?
DL: Oh, God.
I do a concert up in Boston every year for the Cam Neely Foundation. So, it was like, I want to say like ’94, ’95. And I was backstage before the show, and nobody had told me, Cam hadn’t told me. Nobody told me that Bobby Orr was coming. And I was coming out of my dressing room to go to some other comics dressing room to go over something.
And, I turned the corner, there was Bobby Orr and he’s like, “Hey, man, Denis Leary, man. It’s really nice to meet you, big fan.” I was, I literally, I think I probably went “huminah, huminah, huminah,” like, literally. And I was like, uh, and he was like, “Hey man, I’ll be back after the show. OK?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure. OK, great.”
You know, I was a little nervous, I was extra nervous knowing that Bobby Orr was in the audience. And I was getting ready to bring [fellow comedian] Steve Wright on, who’s, you know, Steve’s pretty calm, he’s very low-key, and I brought a guy on and Steve was next and I came off stage and said, like, “What do you want me to say?” And he’s like, “Never mind that, where’s Bobby Orr sitting?” And I went, “I don’t know. I can’t see.” (Laughs)
So, it just, you know, to me that’s like, I’ve met and worked with some of my biggest acting heroes — Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood. I mean, just too many people to name, but meeting Bobby Orr, that’s like when I call my mother and say I’ve met Bobby Orr. My mother was like, “Oh, my God, what was he like?” You know what I mean, it’s just like, I’ll never get over it.
The fact that like every once in a while Bobby calls me or I see him some place and he’s like, “Hey, Denis.” I just can’t, every time he says it to me, I’m like, Bobby Orr just said hi to me. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
SN: It’s almost like it takes you back to being that 12-year-old kid watching that game.
DL: Always, always. The other thing I love about those guys is if you happen to be together and you haven’t seen each other in years or you’re just talking on the phone, whatever it might be, if you bring up a game or a moment from a game because you know it’s been happening recently a lot because they’re running old games now during the lockdown. If you mentioned like, I just watched this game, ’71 and I saw this play, they remember the play, and the game. Exactly. You know, which I love the total recall.
SN: Do you have that picture in your house of Orr’s goal?
DL: Are you kidding me? Of course. Bobby signed one specifically to me.
So, I have it. It’s got a special spot in my office. Yeah, that picture, that one stays. Even when, sometimes you think like, I’m gonna change things, that’s the one that stays. When I was growing up in my house, my parents had — my parents are Irish immigrants who came over, you know, in 1950 — so, as you can imagine, the first Irish president was a huge icon for them. So, in our house we had a picture of Jesus, we had a picture of Jack Kennedy, and we had a picture of Bobby Orr in the kitchen.
SN: When you’re out there playing, who do you maybe emulate? Who do you like to mimic your game a little bit after?
DL: Oh, my God (Laughs), that would be such an insult to any professional player.
The guys I grew up with, there was a lot of great players, so I was always a third- or fourth-line guy. Derek Sanderson was always the guy that I emulated just because — I’m not talking about like the lifestyle-wise — I’m talking about as a player because he was a defensive third-line center who could occasionally score. So we all wanted to be Derek; all the guys that weren’t good enough to be on the first two lines.
And then later in life I became a defenseman. I hasten to tell you that.
In a lot of the charity games I play, my foundation used to have a game up in Boston, Bobby Orr and all those guys used to play in the game and for some reason, they always put me on a defensive pairing with Ray Bourque. And so the first time I played with Ray was at the Garden in front of 15,000 people — which is nerve-wracking enough — but I’m like OK. So they put me with Ray, that’s good because you know I can’t really f— this up, and the first couple of times we were on the ice Ray grabbed the puck and headed up ice and I just sort of stayed back because, you know, it’s Ray Bourque.
So we came off after one of our shifts and he goes, “Hey, man, why don’t you follow me up ice? I’m gonna give you the puck.” And I’m like, “Ray, people don’t want you to give me the puck, OK? The last thing they want is for you to give me the puck.” So whenever he just passed it to me I just passed it right back. (Laughs)
SN: It must have been a thrill, though, for you to be out there with those guys, like one of those fantasy camps.
DL: It is, but it’s also like, it’s, it’s a little frightening, to be honest with you . . . When I first played with Ray he had just retired, and, you know, Cam Neely’s an old friend of mine, I’ve skated with Cam. The sound that their skates make is frightening . . . how strong their legs are and the sound of their skates digging into the ice you just go, like, “Oh, my God, are you kidding me?” you know, and the speed and then when they get going even in a charity game, when you get a bunch of guys who are ex-professional players and mostly Hall of Fame guys, when they start passing the puck around you just go, “Oh, yeah, right, right.”
SN: That’s how you think it looks, not necessarily how it happens.
DL: I’ll tell you when we were younger, this is when Cam was still playing, I remember being on the ice we were shooting a commercial for his charity, the Cam Neely Foundation, and we were just on the ice playing while we were doing the commercial and in between shots we were out at the blue line. And, I forget what the bet was but let’s say it was 50 bucks.
He’s like, ‘Hey, 50 bucks to the first guy who can hit the crossbar from here.”
And we were like, “Yeah, you go first.”
His first shot just goes — PING! — off the crossbar. Second shot — PING! — off the crossbar. We just go, “We quit.”
Wait, what are you, nuts? C’mon.
SN: What’s your take on the Bruins today?
DL: I would say I’m a little bit prejudiced because I’m friends, close friends, with the guy who’s the president of the team, but I have to say that Cam turned that team around. And I was just so overwhelmingly happy for him that [while] he didn’t win a Cup as a player and his career was shortened, the fact that they won a Cup in 2011, and he’s from Vancouver so it was in his hometown, his whole family got to come — that was an amazing thing.
But it’s also kind of amazing, even with the losses against the Blackhawks (in 2013) and against the Blues last year, how consistently great that team has been for the last 10 years and this year. I know I’m a Bruins fan, I’m just saying this with as much — what’s the word — lack of prejudice as I can, I thought this team, the team this year, was better than the team in 2011 and better than last year’s team.
I thought we were going all the way. Great team. I mean, just deep, deep, deep, great goaltending, very deep team.
SN: As a sports fan, what is your take on it what’s happening now? Should they even finish the season or move on? I don’t know if you have an opinion on what’s been going on.
DL: Oh, I have an opinion.
You know, we were in first place. So as far as I’m concerned, if we’re not gonna play any more games I think we should just get the Cup. Now, I know that’s gonna piss off a lot of people but if we can’t do that, then, yeah, let’s play some games. I don’t care if there’s fans there or not.
Listen, you have to understand . . . Last night I watched a game from 1988. The seventh game (of the Eastern Conference finals) vs. the New Jersey Devils and I was yelling at the screen and yelling at the refs and cheering the goals.
So, yeah, I’m losing it a little bit, but, you know, I would watch. I don’t care how they set it up, I would watch it.
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