Ryan Donato wore No. 16 all throughout his hockey life. His favorite number wasn’t available when he made the trek across the Charles River to begin his professional hockey career.
The Bruins had another idea in mind regarding No. 16. This discussion wasn’t up for debate, nor should it have been.
That idea came to fruition Thursday night when the Bruins raised the No. 16 banner high atop the TD Garden rafters to honor Rick Middleton.
Many of the younger Bruins like Donato never saw Middleton play in person. But the former Harvard standout heard plenty of stories from his father, Ted, who grew up idolizing the Nifty.
“My dad’s favorite player is Nifty and I wore No. 16 growing up,” said the younger Donato, who returned for his first game in Boston following an impressive 10-game stint down in Providence.
“In the beginning, it was a little tough not being able to wear that number but it’s obviously for a good reason. When I was home — after going to Prague for a couple of days — there would be times where my dad would show me his highlights on YouTube. Like I said, he was his favorite player growing up and I’m pretty sure that he’d be excited for me to play in this game.”
Over half of the Bruins roster wasn’t born before Middleton’s swan song in 1987-88. Middleton spent the next season in the Swiss League before hanging his skates up for good.
Donato’s father, nor Jake DeBrusk’s dad, Louie, got a first-hand account of Middleton’s crafty playmaking and two-way prowess. But the elder first-generation hockey players did get to share some of his moments with their sons via YouTube.
“From the highlight’s I’ve seen, he was dangling through lots of guys,” DeBrusk said about his viewing of Middleton’s clips on the world wide web. “I think if he were to play nowadays, he’d play a game that’s more suitable for him. He had an edge as well, and obviously, at that time you had to have one. That’s something that is missing from the game and it’s something that can be effective as well. So I think with his nickname being nifty he’d fit this style of game for sure.”
Middleton’s numbers speak for themselves: 402 goals, 496 assists and 898 points. The 402 goals and 898 points both were good for seventh among skaters during his Boston tenure from 1976-77 through 87-88. His 25 career shorthanded goals rank first on the team’s all-time leaderboard in said category.
The Toronto-born product notched those numbers in a different era, where fights and higher scoring games were norms. The league has since curbed fighting and ushered in a new era of skill and talented players.
Middleton, though, would be a good fit in any era. Just ask head coach Bruce Cassidy, a lifelong Bruins fan born in Ottawa.
“The problem you have today is no matter who’s in front of the goalies, the D is covering a lot of the net, so I think that’s where he’d have to change his approach in terms of attacking defensemen,” Cassidy said. “But he’s a good, old-fashioned hockey player. He can fight in the dirty areas for goals, and you still need that in today’s era.”
Thursday’s festivities marked the Bruins’ first banner raising ceremony since Jan. 2004, when Cam Neely’s No. 8 was raised to the rafters. A Hockey Hall of Fame induction came 22 months later for the current team President.
Middleton is still waiting for his deserving induction among the all-time greats. The Bruins will likely wait a little while longer for their next banner-raising ceremony. Zdeno Chara’s No. 33 will hang high above the Garden ice whenever he retires. Patrice Bergeron’s No. 37 will follow. Gerry Cheevers’ No. 30 is also a worthy candidate.
What about Brad Marchand’s No. 63? Well, if you ask Marchand there’s only one place where that number belongs.
“It would look really good in the rafters one day,” a reporter said to Marchand. His response: “Yeah, but it looks better on the ice.”
That’s a discussion for later. Middelton’s number isn’t. Marchand and the rest of the Black and Gold agree with that assessment.
Middleton wouldn’t want it any other way.
“It really is hard to put into words. I’ve had four months to think about it, and I hate repeating myself, but honestly, I believe it is the biggest honor that certainly a retired athlete can get in his career, and the fact that, in the last six or seven years, I’ve been seeing that it’s not out there; nobody’s wearing it,” said Middleton, whose No. 16 was also donned by the likes of Marco Sturm and the almighty Kaspars Daugavins following his career.
“All of a sudden, it happened. In July, a phone call in July; I never thought it would ever happen that way, but I just have to thank Cam [Neely] so much for doing it. He started it six or seven years ago. It culminated tonight.”
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