Rick Middleton looks up, watching as the number 16 he wore for his twelve seasons as a Bruin ascends to the TD Garden rafters.
His family takes a step back from the ropes they helped pull for the banner to rise, leaving Middleton alone to bask in the moment. He raises his arms, partly in pride and possibly disbelief, and smiles as his number permanently settles in between Milt Schmidt’s number 15 and Terry O’Reilly’s number 24.
Middleton never won a Stanley Cup, nor a Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. He only appeared in one All-Star game during his 14 NHL seasons. He still isn’t in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Yet, he’s one of the greatest Bruins to wear the black and gold.
“I believe it is the biggest honor that certainly a retired athlete can get in his career,” Middleton commented prior to the number retirement ceremony on Thursday night. His number 16 is the 11th number retired by the Boston Bruins.
“I played on some great teams with a lot of great guys. Even though we didn’t win the Cup, it was very close.”
Middleton played 1,005 games in his career, recording 988 points. In his 12 seasons in Boston, Middleton was a point-per-game player scoring 898 points in 881 games. He holds an NHL record for most playoff points in one series (19 in 1982-83 against the Sabres) and his 25 shorthanded goals are the most in Bruins franchise history.
“I was lucky to play at the end of the old-time hockey era without helmets, and then everything changed in 79-80,” Middleton said. “Then I got a chance to play at the beginning of the new era, and the team was totally different.”
There is one piece of NHL hardware in Middleton’s trophy case. The Toronto-born product earned the Lady Byng trophy as the league’s most sportsmanship player for the 1981-82 season.
“The teammates were different, but the one thing that remained as a Bruin is that the dedication to winning.”
Middleton thanked everyone that helped get him there during Thursday’s 40-minute ceremony. Flanked to his left was his family, along with Joe Howard of the 2002 US Sled Hockey team of which Middleton led to a gold medal. To his right, Frank Miller, his youth hockey coach in Toronto, Don Cherry, his first head coach in Boston, and four of the other retired Bruin greats: Johnny Bucyk, Cam Neely, Terry O’Reilly, and Ray Bourque.
“I’ve had a long life in hockey, from back when I was just a young boy playing in the backyard and on the street,” Middleton said. “A lot of friends that aren’t here; I’ve lost a lot of good friends over the years. From the time I got to Boston, they were really good friends, and all of their kids are here tonight, so I am going to recognize them also.”
Middleton thanked many, including Jeremy and Charlie Jacobs, Don Sweeney, and Neely. The Bruins’ President called him in July to share the news about his number going up to the rafters. It caught Middleton completely off guard.
“Neely simply said ‘welcome to the club,'” Middleton joked during his ceremony. He later noted that he played with five of the other ten Bruins who have had their number retired.
Middleton then specifically called out former Bruins center Barry Pederson. He lined up with him during the 1981-82 season and was with him for the next three years. Middleton called those “the most fun I’ve had in my entire career.”
In his final game of the season, Middleton told the story of how the generator blew at the old Boston Garden. “The lights went out on my career that night, too,” he joked.
The brightest light shined on the number 16 banner as it raised to the rafters in a dimly lit TD Garden Thursday night.
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