Any Broadway opening is preceded by a tryout tour, all the better to get the kinks out of the production, find out what musical numbers work, where the laughs are, so that the actors know what to expect and can present a show that sweeps its first-night audience off its feet, as if the whole thing was inevitable.
The unveiling of Brad Park as an NHL blue line superstar on Broadway was not inevitable, indeed, had to be delayed for a while, the 20-year-old’s transition to the big time still revealing flaws in his game.
One knock against Park had been his size — it had been that way since his early days growing up through the Toronto Maple Leafs’ minor league system. Plus, there was fact that he came up to the NHL a year or two behind Bobby Orr. Now, as a member of the New York Rangers, the up-and-coming power in the league, Brad was suffering by comparison to the wonder from Parry Sound, and the catcalls from the faithful at Madison Square Garden had grown too loud.
Ranger General Manager and Head Coach Emile (The Cat) Francis did the only thing he could, sending the youngster down to the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League for some seasoning, to get Park more playing time, restore his confidence — and just perhaps, light a fire under his butt.
Still, Brad Park wore one of a million broken hearts created and crushed by high expectations of making it on the Great White Way. His face was as long as the legendary street itself, as he packed his equipment bag and filed out of the Garden and for the move upstate. The Ranger trainer saw him on the way out and tried to get him to buck up.
“Don’t worry, kid. You’ll be back”, the older man, said, offering comfort.
Brad Park accepted the challenge.
“You bet I will, and I’ll be better than ever,” he’s alleged to have said, and got on the train for his Buffalo shuffle.
His coach with the Bisons, Fred Shero, a no-nonsense type whose legend was just building, double-shifted Park, had him killing penalties, assigned him to quarterback the power play, “had me doing everything but taking tickets,” he would tell a magazine interviewer, “and it paid off when the Rangers called me back up a few weeks later”.
The Rangers — as did the Yankees, when they sent Mickey Mantle down to the farm to perfect that home run swing of his — had gambled and won. Brad Park had taken his minor-league medicine and would return to become a star in the making, a defenceman on the order of Orr, Eddie Shore, and Doug Harvey, posting a rookie season many players only dream of, culminating on a brilliant February evening in 1969 when he would notch four assists in the same night, leaving the ice with the Garden faithful chanting his name in tribute rather than derision.
All-Star selections would soon be a matter of course for Brad Park, as would a place on the historic Team Canada of 1972.
The Broadway opening of Brad Park was a four-star success, ensuring him a long run in New York.
In any other time and place, Brad Park’s career would have been the stuff of legend, the story of the kid thought too small for his age to go far in junior hockey, let alone make the NHL, but who would carve out a hall of fame career nonetheless based on skill, savvy, and later, strength.
Brad’s problem was that he came up at a time when Bobby Orr was taking all the headlines, the money and the hardware, Park’s Rangers serving as bridesmaid in the early 70s, while Orr’s Bruins took two trips down the aisle to drink from the Stanley Cup.
Denis Potvin’s career also at times overshadowed Park’s, as the cross-town Islanders took the focus off the Rangers in the late 70s, on their way to four straight sips from Lord Stanley’s mug.
And, in the mid-1970s, as he was changing uniforms from the blue of Broadway to the black-and-gold of Boston, Brad had to contend with the success of the Canadiens, the immortal Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe on their blue line, as Stanley Cup parades became an annual springtime event in Montreal during the late 1970s.
The kid who’d been chided by school chums for his resemblance to a comic strip character would eventually win a ton of respect from his fellow players — past, present and future — for his stand on Alan Eagleson’s status as a fellow hall of famer, actually threatening to yank his own plaque off the wall if the disgraced player agent’s likeness remained there.
Born in Toronto in July 1948, Douglas Bradford Park grew up following the Leafs and actually thought his pro career would lead to Maple Leaf Gardens. Dad Bob refereed in a minor league in Unionville, just outside the city limits, and when Brad was six, he found he could skate just as well as his brothers.
Brad would bug his Dad to get him on a team because he was a referee and figured Bob had some pull. One day, one of the goalies didn’t show up. Brad stood behind his father’s leg and tugging at his trousers and saying, “Tell them I can play, Dad. Tell them'”
Brad donned the goalie pads and promptly got beaten on the first shot that came his way; he was guarding the short side while the opposing forward put the puck in the open side.
Despite the discouraging start in goal, Brad didn’t give up, actually picking up some shutouts until the regular goalie came back. The youngster had won such acceptance by his mates because of his strong skating that the team made him a forward.
Bob coached Brad from atom level to midget, including a sting on the Scarborough peewee team in 1960 that claimed the prestigious Quebec Peewee Tournament, downing a local side 6-0 in the final.
As he moved up the ranks into junior, a decision by the NHL would alter the 15-year-old Park’s future irrevocably. In 1963, the league reduced the number of young players each of the six franchises could have under contract, allowing all clubs relatively equal access to talent from centres like Toronto. Brad Park, who had been affiliated with the Leafs organization (he would move up to the Toronto Marlboros of the OHA the next year), was made expendable because of the ruling. He may still have ended up in Leafs livery, but for yet another error in judgment on the part of the club management.
With only a handful of young prospects on which to hang their future, the Leafs looked at the “too-small” label wrapped around the neck of the youngster, who then barely cleared five feet in height.
His freckly countenance and gap-toothed grin conjured up a resemblance to the MAD Magazine character, Alfred E. Neuman (catch phrase: “What? Me worry?”), something that made him the target of teasing through his teen years, hardening his resolve to make it big even when he was small.
The young Park continued to progress and impress. Though much of his career was spent in the shadow of Bobby Orr (who dazzled Ontario and Canadian fans with the rival Oshawa Generals), Brad at least enjoyed a Canadian junior championship in 1967 with the Marlboros, something Orr could not boast.
When Ranger GM Emile Francis came calling the following year to make Park a member of the fold, he and his family succeeded in getting a verbal promise from the boss that the youngster would be paired with Harry Howell, a former Norris Trophy winner who would mentor the junior grad.
Brad knew he could learn a lot from Harry, and found Howell really went out of his way to work with the youngster. Brad learned so many little things, just in the four weeks of my first Ranger training camp.
Most of them were mental aspects of the game — how to foresee or deal with different situations.
Park soaked up all the instruction he could from the veteran, and a good thing, too; he had a limited time in which to do so. Howell would be dealt away to the Oakland Seals after Park’s first year, thus leaving the young rearguard to sink or swim on his own.
After his four-week apprenticeship under Shero in Buffalo, Park was ready to blossom. He had grown by now to over six feet tall and had filled out in the arms and shoulders, thus enabling to play a hard-hitting game and becoming the team “policeman” when necessary.
He would fight a lot, and pile up the penalty minutes (traditionally triple digits), but was also becoming an offensive force, tallying 73 points in 1971-72, including 24 goals (and was a remarkable plus-62, appearing on the ice for 62 more goals for the Rangers than against), and helping to lead the Broadway Blueshirts to their first Stanley Cup final in 22 years, a series they would eventually lose in six games to Bobby Orr and the Bruins.
The comparisons to the fair-haired boy from Parry Sound and the once skinny, freckly kid from Scarborough would continue, with Orr carrying off the hardware most of the time and grabbing the headlines.
Eventually, Brad Park (a six-time bridesmaid in the Norris voting) would shrug his shoulders and conclude that there really was only one Bobby Orr. From then on, Brad Park was just going to be Brad Park.
When the ’72 finals ended with the Bruins, it was a no-brainer that the by-now veteran Park would join Team Canada that summer for its much-awaited summit series with the Olympic champions from the Soviet Union. With Orr’s absence due to yet another knee operation, it was just as automatic that Brad’s responsibilities would increase. With wife Gerry now pregnant, and a new addition to the family coinciding with the start of the epic eight-game series in September of that year, the pressure on Park was enormous.
Missing Orr in game one in Montreal, Team Canada did not know what hit them, and got clobbered by the upstart Russians 7-3. With Park away from the lineup in game two to attend to Gerry, the group of all-stars sucked it up for a 4-1 triumph at Maple Leaf Gardens that was not without chippy play and controversy. Soviet hockey Pooh-Bahs pursued the on-ice officials down the tunnel after the game, complaining about supposedly blown calls and hammered on their referees’ dressing room to make their point known.
Karma would reverse itself when the two teams boarded their aircraft for the Soviet portion of that series.
When the Soviets drew a 2-1, then a 3-1 lead in games (there was one tie, 4-4, when Canada and the USSR met in Winnipeg in game three), all Canada held its breath. Were our boys about to get their comeuppance against a bunch of so-called amateurs with funny sounding names? Was the Canadian system of raising hockey players just plain old-fashioned wrong?
The atmosphere in the Canadian tent was anything but panicky; indeed, some were opining that Canada had the Russians right where it wanted them, that suddenly, a bunch of professionals, some of them making six-figure salaries, were the underdog, venturing into a hostile climate where the fans were strangely the least of their problems.
The day after game five, in which the Soviets overcame a three-goal deficit to win 5-4, Park would later say that he and his mates just started talking about taking it one game at a time, one period at a time.
A spiritual push from the fans back home didn’t hurt, for when the players got to Moscow, they had received about 10,000 telegrams from people back home wishing us good luck and stuff. So the players taped all the telegrams to the walls of the dressing room so that every time they went to practice, or out for a period, they would see all those telegrams.
As if to counter the wave of good vibes from the dirty capitalists across the pond, Soviet operatives were pulling out all the stops to make sure the players who arrived at the Lenin Sports Complex in Moscow every night to battle their national heroes were, shall we say, somewhat less than sharp.
Some of the Kremlin’s tactics were downright dirty, placing intercoms in rooms and turning them on in the middle of the night, after the Canadians had turned them off. And the phone would ring in the middle of the night. The sleepy athletes would pick it the phone and there’d be no one on the other end.
This was, of course, just an appetizer for the main course Team Canada would be served when the players stepped out onto the Luzhniki Stadium ice for game six, their first “must-win” contest of the eight-game series. When the puck was dropped, the team realized it faced another opponent ‘” a pair of European officials named Franz Baader and Joseph Kompalla whose skating ability and judgment were both somewhat suspect.
Canadian players, fans and officials figured something was up when Canada was assessed 31 minutes in penalties in game six to four minutes for the USSR. Miraculously, though, Canada prevailed for a 3-2 victory, the winning marker popped in by Paul Henderson, whose status as a national hero was only budding.
As for Brad Park, he would be caught up ice in game seven by an Alexander Yakushev breakaway, snake-bitten again when a pass caromed off his skate to Vladimir Petrov, who also tallied for the hammer-and-sickle icers. But Canada would hang on one more time, squaring a penalty-filled encounter with only minutes to go, before Henderson swooped into the offensive zone and undressed a pair of Soviet defenders, before lifting the disc over Vladislav Tretiak for his second straight game winner, to tie the series at three wins apiece!
Park was having difficulty getting untracked until the final two games of the series, but appears to have peaked at just the right time. Given his concern for his growing family back in Toronto, the slow-building momentum was understandable.
For every hockey fan past the age of say, 40 or 45, the afternoon of September 28, 1972, the day of game eight, is like no other day in the history of Canada. Most employers and schoolteachers realized nothing was going to get done in their workplaces or classrooms after 12 noon (it was evening in Moscow), so most of Canada played hooky while the cream of Canadian rinks played hockey, in a foreign land, under the same set of impossible conditions.
Among the stalwarts who stood tall that Moscow night was Brad Park.
There was a bit of luck involved, better luck than befell Jean-Paul Parise, the pride of Smooth Rock Falls, in Northern Ontario, fingered by the notorious Kompalla for an interference call (everything to Kompalla, it seemed, was interference, particularly if perpetrated by a Canadian player) early in the first period.
When J-P argued his case, Kompalla heard something he didn’t like and sent Parise to the showers with a game misconduct. Parise went ballistic, and took a run at the official, drawing his stick back as if to behead Kompalla, before his mates got between them and helped J-P off the ice.
The incident did nothing to correct the impression that the Russians had help from the men in striped shirts. Nor did the way the Soviets played, sneaking in some chippy tactics of their own — hooking, slashing, even resorting to kicking in some instances.
Invariably, the Canadians reacted to this kind of cheap stuff and got sent off the ice for doing so. There is that deathless memory of Phil Esposito, standing up in the penalty box, signaling to his Soviet counterpart that he’d like a piece of him, surmounting the language barrier by putting up his dukes, pointing to his adversary and then to himself in a kind of “you-and-me, let’s-take-it-outside” gesture. Hundreds of millions of fans watching the world over almost forgot that there was a hockey game going on, as the evening turned uglier and uglier.
But for those keeping score, the Soviets led 5-3 after two periods. Typically, as they had done all month, the Canadians refused to give in or hang their heads. All the players could talk about at intermission was getting that fourth goal early, something they succeeded in doing off a Brad Park drive from the point, Phil Esposito capitalizing on the rebound. A mad scramble around Tretiak late in the third period created several bounces, the last of which was pounced home by Yvan Cournoyer. Canada was still alive.
But even the celebration of the tying marker was not without incident. You see, the red light behind the Soviet net did not go on, which got the blood of hockey czar Alan Eagleson boiling. His shouting and gesticulating at the goal judge, Viktor Dombrowski (who would make future Canadian ventures into international hockey a living hell with his incompetence as a referee), got the Eagle mixed up with Soviet police at rink side. Pete Mahovlich barreled across the rink with the help of several Team Canada mates to pull Alan out of the fray and across the rink to the players’ bench where he continued to give Dombrowski what for.
Pretty soon, cooler heads prevailed, but the set-to between the Eagle and the Bear only added to the air of unreality this game was taking on.
Then came Henderson’s heroics in the last minute, Paul finding himself alone in front of the young Soviet netminder and recipient of a fat, juicy rebound too good to ignore, blasting it past Tretiak for the game and series winner that sent Canadians to Cloud Nine.
It had been a less-than-promising start for Brad Park and his cohorts who were giving up their summer to defend Canada’s hockey reputation. But as Shakespeare said, all’s well that ends well.
Coming off that high for Park, Henderson, Cournoyer, Phil and Tony Esposito and all the stars of Team Canada 72 would take months. Many fans would be excused if they forgot there was an NHL season after those 28 days of excitement in September, and the advent of the brawling, intimidating style of the Philadelphia Flyers would make people wonder if the National Hockey League had learned anything from the summit with the Soviets. The dump-bump-and-chase style of hockey to which many NHL clubs clung would remain in vogue, the free-flowing, fast-skating style eschewed for years to come, until a saviour with number 99 on his back changed all that.
All the better for Philly’s Broad Street Bullies, who would capitalize in the spring of 1974. A major hurdle for the Flyers (now coached by Shero, Park’s former minor league mentor in Buffalo) on the path to Stanley Cup glory would be provided by Brad Park and the New York Rangers. An incident in their semifinal series would reveal the character of Park, the Rangers and the Flyers.
Flyers’ chief muscleman, Dave (The Hammer) Schultz, assigned himself a special mission to humble Brad Park, by now the Ranger captain, whom he took as a snob.
In game six of the series, Schultz checked Brad and knocked him down.
The Hammer worked his way free of the linesman that held Park down, then belted him four good ones in the stomach before the official pushed Dave to a neutral corner.
Given that the stakes were this high and that Philly was going into the gutter to win, why not join the Broad Street Bullies in that gutter? Why not send out a designated hitter of your own, a man specializing in haymakers rather than playmaking, to neutralize Schultz, no matter the cost?
Park was philosophical; it was just a game, not a war.
Then, with New Yorkers clenching their fists in frustration at their Stanley Cup failures, management on Broadway decided to blow up the whole operation. In early 1976, Brad Park was shipped to the Boston Bruins, along with Jean Ratelle and Rick Middleton, in a deal that sent Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Carol Vadnais to Manhattan.
Brad had issued harsh comments about the dilapidated Boston Garden, the Bruins and their rabid fans, and worried aloud how he’d be received once he reached the rink. Fortunately, the transplanted Ranger star overcame that initial coolness and won the fans over, particularly when Bobby Orr went down yet again with knee problems. It put an end to a dream blue line pairing in Beantown, with Bobby and Brad spelling each other and even working the power play together.
Worse for Bobby, relations with the Bruin organization had soured, partly because of his recalcitrance in contract negotiations, in part because his unreliable knees (“If I was a horse,” Orr confided to a friend, “they’d shoot me”), and the free-wheeling star was soon on his way to Chicago, where his career was suffering the beginning of the end.
Park was now the main man on defence for the Boston Bruins, and a new era was about to begin.
Don Cherry asked him to sit back and concentrate on the defensive side of the game, Brad would say later, unless he was on the power play or the Bostonians were behind late in the game.
They must have seen, though, that Grapes’ strategy was prolonging a hall-of-fame career, sparing Brad from rushing the puck so often. He also experienced problems with his knees (nine operations in a 17-year career, but he never missed a playoff round) and Don was likely taking that into account, too. The new, stay-at-home version of Brad Park was helping to build success in Boston.
First, there was a measure of revenge against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1977, when the Bruins swept them out of the playoffs in four straight. Cherry’s “Lunchpail A.C.”, as it came to be known, would go to the finals that year, and the next, with only Scotty Bowman’s Habs standing in the way of a cup victory each time.
While the Norris Trophy would evade him all those years in Boston, and later in Detroit, Brad Park would get his hands on some valuable NHL hardware in 1984 when he took the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to the game.
When his playing career finally gave out in 1985, Brad Park took over as coach of the Red Wings, a thankless job at that time, handling a team that appeared to have lost its compass on the way back to the top, a job in which he lasted only 45 games before being sacked.
Fortunately, chroniclers of the game had longer and fonder memories of Brad Park. His selection to the Hall of Fame in 1988 was a lead-pipe cinch, and when The Hockey News selected its top 100 players of all-time, Brad Park was ranked number 49.
It was that credibility on which Brad Park capitalized in the early 1990s when the controversy surrounding Alan Eagleson was swirling.
Eagleson had acquired enormous wealth and prestige as executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, but had become too cozy with owners and was found to be enriching himself with money from the players’ pension fund, leaving many erstwhile clients broke.
The pressure eventually forced the Eagle to resign as union head.
Ultimately, Eagleson was convicted of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to prison time, and threats by hall of famers such as Orr, Howe, Hull, Ted Lindsay, Johnny Bucyk, Henri Richard and Brad Park to pull their names from the hall if Eagleson didn’t resulted in Alan’s resignation from hockey’s shrine.
Brad Park had stood up for the defence of his team, his fellow players, and the game itself. How he crowned his hockey career by his behaviour off-ice is truly an amazing story!