Being a defenseman from the late 60’s to the early 80’s often meant you were largely ignored. Playing in Bobby Orr’s shadow, and later Denis Potvin’s, had become accepted practice for most defenseman trying to make a name for themselves. However there was one player, doing his best to refine the offensive defenseman role as well, who shined brightest in the shadows.
This month Boston Sports Then and Now honors the forgotten defenseman, Brad Park, as the Vintage Athlete of the Month.
Park was drafted second overall in the 1966 NHL Amateur Draft by the New York Rangers, skipped by the Boston Bruins who had the first overall pick that year.
He began his career with the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL, netting two goals and fourteen points in just seventeen games before being called up to the NHL and never looking back.
Almost immediately, Park was a sensation not just in New York but around the league as his elite two way play quickly opened eyes. Park was a mobile, physical, tenacious defender with fantastic offensive skills. He was not as flashy as Orr but was incredibly good at both ends of the ice whether he was threading a perfect pass to a teammate through traffic or unleashing his mighty hip check to an opponent foolish enough to enter the defensive zone on Park’s side.
He continually frustrated opponents while shutting down virtually every chance they had in the offensive zone while Park was on the ice and then zooming down to the offensive zone and helping pin opponents in their own end while effortlessly toying with the opposition.
After just his second season in the league Park was named to the NHL’s First Team All-Star roster, an honor he would receive five times throughout his career as the comparisons to Orr continued. However Park’s Rangers and Orr’s Bruins were locked in a vicious rivalry, a rivalry that had Park uttering some unkind words about Boston and their fans.
The Rangers were a team on the rise through the 70’s with Park as their anchor. Likewise the Bruins with Orr, Esposito and the gang were about to go on a fantastic run of their own.
The rivalry between Boston and New York transcended sports but was exemplified by the Bruins-Rangers battles. Park wrote a book that was published in 1971 called “Play the Man” where he expressed his dislike for all things Boston, referring to Boston fans as animals and Bruins players as nothing more than thugs.
The hate was mutual as Bruins fans loved booing Park just as much as they loved cheering for their own team. Seeing Park and the Rangers lose became and incredibly satisfying experience for the Boston crowd.
After the Rangers fell to the Bruins in the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals, Park’s dislike for the Bruins had him contemplating leaving the ice before the hand shake line began, but his respect for his greatest competitor gave him second thoughts.
“I thought I just couldn’t line up and shake hands with them [the Bruins] after the game [the 1972 Stanley Cup finale],” Park told the Hockey News in 1972. “I was all set to leave for our dressing room when I noticed Orr was the first in line. Because of my tremendous respect for him I changed my mind.”
As Orr’s health declined the Bruins began to look for a capable fill-in and called the Rangers to discuss the unthinkable. The intense rivalry between the two teams did not blind the Bruins to Park’s immense skill…
The 1975-76 season saw the Rangers off to a horrendous start and suddenly every player on the team was for sale. The Bruins jumped at the opportunity and on November 7th, 1975 one of the biggest, and most controversial, trades in NHL history was made.
Boston star Phil Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais were sent to the hated Rangers in exchange for Jean Ratelle, Joe Zanussi and the focus of hate for many Bruins fans, Brad Park.
Park was livid when he heard the news and even cried while talking about refusing to report to Boston. Playing for the Bruins was likely the last thing Park ever thought he would but there he was slipping on the black and gold after ultimately deciding to play.
The relationship between Park and the fans was rocky at first, especially since Phil Esposito had been shipped out but Park’s fantastic defensive play and hockey sense quickly won over the Boston fans and he quickly became a fan favorite.
Park arguably played the best hockey of his career with Boston and even led the Bruins to two Stanley Cup Finals during his 7-plus seasons but unfortunately could never claim hockey’s ultimate prize.
The unlucky Park also had the misfortune of playing in the same eras as Bobby Orr and Dennis Potvin, and finished second place six times in the Norris Trophy voting over the course of his career.
Park finished his NHL career with 353 goals and 1021 points in 1274 career games. At the time of his retirement he was the highest scoring defenseman in Rangers history and second only to Bobby Orr for the Bruins.
Brad Park was unquestionably a hockey legend, getting inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1988. He is often referred to as the best player to have never won the Stanley Cup and the best defenseman to have never one a Norris Trophy, as well as simply being one of the best players to ever lace up a pair of skates.