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Backchecking: Terry O’Reilly

Terry O'Reilly scored 204 goals and 606 points in 891 career NHL games. (Getty Images)

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Terry O'Reilly scored 204 goals and 606 points in 891 career NHL games. (Getty Images)

By David Salter

No player has ever epitomized what it means to be a Boston Bruin like Terry O’Reilly. Tough? Check. Talented? Check. Irish ancestry? Check.

In the late 1970s, O’Reilly was the ringleader of the Lunch Pail Gang, one of the most beloved outfits in Bruins history. As the name suggests, the Bruins of the time took a hard-hat approach to the game – a tight-knit squad whose success was mostly predicated on an unmatched work ethic.

Working-class Boston fans saw themselves in O’Reilly, who overcame somewhat limited skills, particularly skating, with dogged determination. Nicknamed ‘Taz,’ as in Tasmanian Devil, the right winger held his own as a pugilist against all comers in arguably hockey’s toughest era. His scraps against the likes of Dave Schultz, Paul Holmgren and particularly Clark Gillies are the stuff of legend. 

However, O’Reilly sealed his status as a gallery god in Beantown by developing into an effective all-around player, culminating in 1977-78 with a 90-point season. O’Reilly’s stellar performance that year was rewarded with an appointment to the ’78 All-Star Game, the second appearance of his career. “I spent most of my career playing on a line with Don Marcotte, who had to cover the defensive holes I left when I was going all over the ice,” O’Reilly said. “I also played quite a bit with Peter McNab. But in ’77-78 I played on a line with Jean Ratelle and Rick Middleton. I got most of my goals from their shots that deflected off me.”

If O’Reilly was the face of the Bruins in the late 1970s, coach Don Cherry was the mouth. The two ruffians were a perfect match and not surprisingly O’Reilly’s best years came with Cherry calling the shots. “Don was a great,” said O’Reilly, now 60 and still living in Boston. “I enjoyed playing for him. He was a very much a player’s coach…an honest coach. If he saw something he didn’t like, he voiced it. You knew where you stood.”

Although O’Reilly flourished under Cherry, he never received any preferential treatment. “After playing on the weekend we used to have Mondays off most weeks,” O’Reilly said. “On Tuesday we used to have this thing called Black Tuesdays where he used to basically horse whip us. It was nothing personal; he just wanted us to be in better shape so we’d have a better chance of beating our next opponents.”

As for Cherry’s television exploits after his coaching career ended in 1979-80, O’Reilly is not surprised. “Don knows the game,” O’Reilly said. “He has good instincts about what a team needs and he speaks his mind about it. Sometimes he steps over the line. But the honest, gut instincts are what the fans like.”

O’Reilly appeared in three Stanley Cup finals, scored 606 points and accumulated 2,095 penalty minutes in 891 games – all with Boston,  from 1972 to 1985. He finished his career as captain of the Bruins and to no one’s surprise was named coach of the Bruins a year later. O’Reilly was behind the bench for three seasons – highlighted by a berth in the 1988 Stanley Cup final.

The Niagara Falls, Ont., native relinquished his duties after 1988-89 to be with his ill son and was never a head coach again. O’Reilly, whose number 24 was retired by Bruins, is content these days dabbling in real estate and playing with the Bruins alumni.

Ever the team player, O’Reilly said as a coach he could never accept his group being torn apart by trades. “I enjoyed the teaching aspect of coaching, being on the ice at practice, the atmosphere,” he said. “However, as a coach, you have to get 20 men to work together liked a well-oiled machine but the possibility of trades was the opposite of doing everything as a team. I had a lot of difficulty with trades.

“You get to know the players and their families and you get close. The Steve Kasper-Jay Miller trade with the Kings for Bobby Carpenter is an example. They were big parts of our dressing room. When you uproot guys like that there’s an empty
feeling behind.”

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