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On Thursday evening before the Boston Bruins played host to the New York Islanders, the Bruins organization held a very special and emotional event as they retired their 11th jersey number, raising the number 16 that Rick “Nifty” Middleton wore while playing for Boston from 1976 to 1988.

To begin the evening, a highlight montage was played, but one has to wonder how difficult it was in choosing what made the montage given the many accomplishments Middleton had during his time in a Bruins jersey.

The Toronto, Ontario native had played just two years with the New York Rangers—who had drafted him 14th  overall in 1973—before being traded to Boston in exchange for Ken Hodge, a man ten years his senior, on May 26, 1976. The speedy winger was known for his scoring, but as Don Cherry reminded him Thursday night, he was not as developed defensively. Cherry was determined to aid him with that development and Boston ultimately got a well-rounded, two-way forward, who on his opening night in a black and gold jersey scored a hat trick on a line with Barry Pederson. Middleton would spend twelve years with a Spoked B on the front of his jersey, eventually sharing co-captain duties with Ray Bourque—whose no. 77 also hangs in the rafters at TD Garden—throughout his final three years in Boston.

The 5’ 11” right winger played a total of 881 games for the Bruins. Over those games he would compile 402 goals and 496 assists for an impressive 898 points. His total goals puts him in third behind only John Bucyk (545) and Phil Esposito (459)  in most goals scored, while his 496 assists are good enough for sixth most earned behind Bourque (1,111), Bucyk (794), Bobby Orr (624), Esposito (553), and Wayne Cashman (516). With his 898 points, he sits in fourth place on Boston’s all-time scoring list once again behind Bourque (1,506), Bucyk (1,339), and Esposito (1,012).

A few years ago, it was made known to Middleton that the number 16 jersey had been “put away” and was no longer available as a choice for new players joining the team. The last player to wear it for the Bruins was Kaspars Daugavins in 2013. However, as Middleton shared during his eloquent speech, he didn’t know if that day would actually ever come when it would be permanently unavailable.

“It really is hard to put into words. I’ve had four months to think about it, and I hate repeating myself, but honestly, I believe it is the biggest honor that certainly a retired athlete can get in his career, and the fact that, in the last six or seven years, I’ve been seeing that it’s not out there; nobody’s wearing it. All of a sudden, it happened. In July, a phone call in July; I never thought it would ever happen that way, but I just have to thank Cam [Neely] so much for doing it. He started it six or seven years ago. It culminated tonight,” Middleton said before the event.

Despite the solemnness of the event, there was still lots of laughter. Middleton even got a little poke at Cherry when he said he didn’t invite any more of his former teammates because there would be “too many men on the ice.” Middleton’s jab was in reference to that terrible night of May 10, 1979, when the Bruins who were leading the Montreal Canadiens 4-3, playing at the Forum in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinal with 2:34 left in regulation, were whistled for having too many men on the ice. The Canadiens tied it while on the power play and then got the win during overtime. This remains one of the most difficult moments in the Bruins’ history. But time has given those who played in that game some perspective and the ability to joke about it now.

Watching as Middleton’s family were joined by a few former Bruins players, some players and coaches involved in the 2002 Olympic Team USA gold medal-winning sled hockey team, which Middleton coached, and the two coaches Middleton credits with his success–Frank Miller (his bantam and midget coach) and Don Cherry, it was impossible not to notice the love, support and recognition. But perhaps the best takeaway was seeing the Bruins present team, all sitting on their bench throughout the ceremony wearing smiles. More importantly, it was the obvious respect that each of them had in their eyes as they watched first Middleton talk about  his career and then he and his family raise his number to the rafters.

“You know, in my speech, I just talk about you don’t do it alone. I played on some great teams with a lot of great guys. Even though we didn’t win the Cup, it was very close. In two different eras, I was lucky to play at the end of the old-time hockey era without helmets, and then everything changed in 79-80. Then I got a chance to play at the beginning of the new era, and the team was totally different. The teammates were different, but the one thing that remained as a Bruin is that the dedication to winning. It didn’t matter who the coach was – maybe because Terry [O’Reilly] was still on the team, and then he became a coach. He always raised the bar for the guys. Nobody ever wanted to let each other down; that’s why we were successful,” Middleton shared.

The Bruins team hasn’t changed as much as the equipment or the rules since the time of Middleton. They still don’t want to let down their teammates. And perhaps that should be the legacy of those numbers that hang above with names like Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper, Lionel Hitchman, Milt Schmidt, Orr, Bucyk, Esposito, Bourque, O’Reilly and Neely. Those on the ice not only don’t want to let down each other, but they also don’t want to let down those who paved the way and who showed what the word team really means.

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