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Backchecking: O'Donnell skated with the best

Fred O'Donnell had 15 goals and 26 points in 115   career NHL games. (THN Archives)

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Fred O'Donnell had 15 goals and 26 points in 115 career NHL games. (THN Archives)

 BY NEIL ACHARYA

The Boston Bruins of the early 1970s are solidified in hockey lore.

Orr, Esposito, Buyck and Cheevers are some of the names that immediately come to mind.

Among those big names was a gritty young winger from Gananoque, Ont., named Fred O’Donnell.

“I was certainly fortunate to be playing for the Bruins during that time,” O’Donnell said. “A lot of the popularity with the club has stayed with that era.”

One special night in Gananoque, O’Donnell was in attendance when NHL scouts discovered a kid named Bobby Orr during a bantam playoff game.

“He must have been pretty special for me to remember that particular game,” O’Donnell noted.

Little did he know at the time, the two would one day be teammates with the Big, Bad Bruins.

O’Donnell, who came up in the era when players were signed by an organization – often in their early teens – instead of going through the draft, was no stranger to the Boston Garden when he finally broke in with the Bruins in 1972-73.

“I played my first game in the Garden when I was 17,” he said. “The Bruins sponsored both the Niagara Falls Flyers and the Oshawa Generals and flew them down to showcase prospects.

“I always enjoyed playing at the Gardens – we had good teams and I liked the smaller ice surface and the physical play,” added O’Donnell, who also played at the Gardens as a member of the American League’s Boston Braves.

O’Donnell scored his first goal on Long Island against Billy Smith. Just as any player would, he got the puck.

“A couple of months later I received another puck on a plaque stating it was my first goal,” he said. “I now have two pucks stating they were my first.”

That season, the Bruins were vying for a third Stanley Cup in four seasons, but major injuries to Orr and Phil Esposito resulted in an early exit from the playoffs at the hands of the New York Rangers. That didn’t stop O’Donnell and a few of his teammates from having Esposito join them at a party to celebrate the season.

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“We were at a restaurant down the street from the Mass General (the hospital where Esposito was recovering from knee surgery),” O’Donnell recalled. “We thought it would be good to have Phil join us.”

After the group distracted the nurse and wheeled Esposito out of his room and out of the hospital through a side door, a comedy writer could have scripted what happened next.
 
“Phil’s leg was in a cast from the hip down, it was elevated by a pulley,” O’Donnell said. “We started wheeling him down the street towards the restaurant – the wheel on my side fell off.”

They ended up getting the bed to the desired destination and Esposito was able to enjoy the party, albeit in a hospital gown.

O’Donnell sees that time as a good period to be a Bruin and a Bruins fan.

“The people who played with those guys played better,” he said. “It was a very talented team with lots of unique personalities that came together on the ice to create one identity.”

O’Donnell left the Bruins following the 1973-74 season and went on to play two seasons with the New England Whalers of the WHA. After retiring as a player, he went into coaching and taught at hockey schools in Kingston, Ont., before getting into real estate.

He coached the Queen’s University Golden Gaels to their first Ontario championship in 67 years in 1980-81 and later coached the Ontario League’s Kingston Canadians. Queen’s has not advanced as far in the quarter-century since.

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