Forty years ago, as the Montreal Canadiens were dressing down the rest of the NHL to the tune of a 60-8-12 record, a kind of folk hero renaissance was happening in Boston.
Hockey history is sprinkled with teams that were never going to win a Cup, due to what we might think of as celestial bad timing. The stars, for instance, were just never going to line-up for those wonderful mid-1980s Flyers teams, when the mighty Oil out of Edmonton were doing their Gretzky-based things.
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And so it was with the Bruins squad that emerged from the wake of Bobby Orr’s glorious run of play, to also find themselves shorn of one Phil Esposito, and now fronted with a dynastic juggernaut from the north. But has there ever been a more fun team than the one that Bruins head coach—and a fun dude, himself—Don Cherry came to dub the ‘Lunch Pail A.C.’?
It’s a hell of a nickname for a team, better than the Gas House Gang, the Greatest Show in Turf, the Impossible Dream Sox, or just about anything you, or the history books, can cite. The appellation was born of what we might kindly call a paucity of talent.
For years, Orr and Espo owned the tops of the scoring leaders list, but it’s misleading to say that Cherry’s hardworking bunch lacked talent. They lacked flash, really, and they were also the real life version of the Chiefs in Slap Shot, but with a collective scoring touch to match the great glee the entire team seemingly exuded in anything contretemps-related. Bashing the absolute bag out of people was fun! More fun, still, if you could then go out on the next shift—once you were sprung from the penalty box, of course—and roof one in the crease.
There’s a lot you can’t control in life. Can’t control how much ability you were born with. Can’t control, sometimes—and way more than we’d like—how people will treat you. Can’t control if someone will love you back, can’t control if you’ll have natural blonde hair or a good memory or a fondness for apples, but one thing you can always control is how hard you are going to work. And no team, in hockey history, worked harder than the Lunch Pail A.C. Which could be quite glorious to watch.
The premise was simple: dump, chase, repeat, as if the entire team was one Sisyphean behemoth, but one who would roll the boulder to the top of the hill—eventually—and pot a goal there. Most of the goals were of the scuzzy, in the crease, deflection, cashed-in-rebound variety. It’s easy now to think that the A.C. was comprised just of pluggers, but they were stacked, in their way.
Jean Ratelle was thirty-six, but still popped for 94 points. Johnny Bucyk was forty-one, but a serviceable contributor. Terry O’Reilly, who was beginning to epitomize everything that it meant to be a big, bad Bruin, was on his way up, Brad Park was the best defenseman in the league not named Denis Potvin or Larry Robinson. Peter McNab could snipe, Rick “Nifty” Middleton was starting to figure things out, Wayne Cashman could still go into a corner against the likes of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun and come out with the puck, but what one really loves the Lunch Pail A.C. for is its bottom-of-the-roster collection of admirable nut jobs.
Like Stan Jonathan. He was twenty-one during this first campaign of the Lunch Pail, and if anything ever so much as held a stick in its hands or passed about on skates, Jonathan would fight it. Is anyone scary in today’s NHL? Dudes used to be scary. Chris Pronger was scary. Scott Stevens was scary. Mark Messier, scary. Usually, to be scary you’d have to excel in the brawn department. Not Jonathan. He was simply unhinged.
But was he as unhinged as Mike Milbury? A few years later, at Christmastime, the Colgate grad would take to the stands at Madison Square Garden, and beat a man with his own shoe—for these things happen—as dulcet-toned Bruins play-by-play man Fred Cusick provided commentary, seemingly against his will, but also, sort of, enjoying the madness. Happy holidays, puckheads.
That 1976-77 Bruins team also had a young John Wensink, who, if anything, could out-unhinge Stan Jonathan. Ever feel like the world is against you? Or maybe just your boss? Your ex-love interest and his or her friends? Have a watch of Wensink challenging the entire Minnesota North Stars bench to a fight the next season. What is better—the t-stop he makes in front of their bench, like he’s four and just learning how to skate, or the shrug of utter disgust when no one has the, shall we say, grapefruit—or grapes, if you want to stick with a Don Cherry theme—to come over the boards and throw with this warrior-with-a-moral code? Albeit a perverse one.
That earlier installment of the Lunch Pail dealt the Canadiens 3 of their 8 regular season losses. They were strong in goal, with Gerry Cheevers still hanging around, and Gilles Gilbert being like a proto-version of Grant Fuhr, only less skilled, so, really, like a proto-version of Mario Gosselin. Still, pretty good.
The joint production was enough to take the Lunch Pail to the Cup Final, where the Canadiens wiped them out in four. Those Canadiens were going to take all but the gods out in four. But the Lunch Pail would have popped in some dirty goals on those aforesaid gods, and beaten them down in a line brawl or two, just to serve notice that that there’s more to life, sometimes, than winning, and there are ways around bad timing. Being unique does not hurt. Nor a cool nickname. Nor a storehouse of grapefruits.