It is a universally accepted truth among Ranger fans that the worst trade in team history was made on May 26, 1976 when GM John Ferguson sent 23-year-old Rick Middleton to the Boston Bruins for Ken Hodge, who was 9 years his senior. So when the Bruins announced that they would be retiring Middleton’s #16 sweater on November 29th 2018 it was like rubbing salt in an old wound.
The deal was Ferguson’s first as Rangers GM and initially it didn’t look that bad on paper. Hodge and Phil Esposito had once formed two-thirds of the highest scoring line (along with Wayne Cashman) in NHL history and Ken at 6-2, 210 lbs. brought much needed size to the Rangers lineup. He had also won two Stanley Cups with the Bruins and had the kind of experience Fergy needed in the Ranger locker room. So after listening to Espo’s nagging that he needed Hodge to dig pucks out of the corners and feed him in the slot, throughout his first half season at the helm Ferguson made the fateful deal.
Bruins GM Harry Sinden originally wanted Steve Vickers in return for Hodge, but “Sarge” had been the NHL’s Rookie of the Year a few years earlier and Fergy didn’t want to trade him. But Rick Middleton was another story. He was a young, talented prospect who had already recorded 46 goals with 44 assists in 124 games with the Blueshirts, but had also fallen under the influence of Derek Sanderson when the “Turk” was at his worst. Even after Sanderson was traded, Middleton continued to burn the candle at both ends. So Ferguson offered Middleton and Sinden gladly accepted.
The party line at the time was that the trade was made to save Middleton’s career, which led one beat reporter to wonder aloud “I guess they don’t have any bars in Boston?”
Ferguson also realized that despite Middleton’s potential, he had been hired by Alan “Bottom Line” Cohen, the man who had fired Emile Francis, to turn the team around. He knew he had to produce results quickly and figured he had a better chance of winning with the veteran Hodge teamed with Espo than waiting for Middleton to get his act together.
“We think we have enough youth on the Rangers,” Ferguson told the assembled media. “Certainly Phil Esposito compliments Kenny and Ken will give the Rangers strength, lots of size and a durable hockey player. I think this trade brings us a step closer to the Stanley Cup.”
Well not quite. The 1976-77 Blueshirts finished in the Patrick Division cellar for the second straight year. Hodge wound up third on the team in scoring (21-41-62) behind Esposito (34-46-80) and Rod Gilbert (27-48-75), while Middleton scored 20 goals with 22 assists for the Adams Division leading Bruins.
The next season however, Hodge slumped badly, scoring only two goals in his first 18 games. By mid-November with the team playing at a sub .500 level and sinking fast, Fergy began the “Great Right-Wing Purge of 1977.” First he sent Hodge and Bill Goldsworthy, another underperforming right winger to New Haven. Then on Thanksgiving Eve, he released long-time Ranger Rod Gilbert. The 36-year old right winger had scored only two goals in the Rangers first 19 games and Ferguson sensed that Rod’s best days were behind him. Fergy also didn’t care for Gilbert’s attitude. He feared that his lackadaisical demeanor would rub off on the younger players. Gilbert was also the leader of a clubhouse clique that was constantly at odds with Phil Esposito, and Fergy didn’t consider him to be a team player. The changes actually paid off as Eddie Johnstone and Don Murdoch saw more ice time and the Blueshirts finished in fourth place in the Patrick Division, but lost to the Buffalo Sabres in the Preliminary round of the playoffs.
Hodge spent the remainder of that season in the AHL and retired at the end of the year. He later played 37 games with the Broome Dusters of the AHL in 1979-80. In 96 games with the Rangers Hodge scored 23 goals with 45 assists and 16 penalty minutes. Overall in 880 NHL games over a 14 year career with Chicago, Boston and New York he scored 328 goals with 472 assists and 777 PIM. In 97 playoff games he recorded 34 goals with 47 assists and 130 PIM.
Meanwhile up in Beantown, Middleton got his act together both on and off the ice. He experienced some tough love from Coach Don Cherry, who helped to make Rick, who saw himself as a goal scorer into a complete two-way player. He went on to string together seven consecutive 30-plus goal seasons, peaking at 51 in 1981-82. In all, Rick averaged over a point a game for the Bruins, scoring 402 goals and adding 496 assists for 898 points in 881 games.
Hodge came up through the Black Hawk organization and after spending the first two years of his career with Chicago, he was part of one of the biggest deals in NHL history, going to Boston with Phil Esposito and forward Fred Stanfield in exchange for defenseman Gilles Marotte, center Pit Martin and goaltender Jack Norris in May 1967. Hodge scored a total of 289 goals in nine seasons for the Bruins, reaching the 50-goal plateau in 1973-74. But teammates often complained that he was too chummy with team president, Weston Adams Jr. and he often clashed with his coaches, Harry Sinden and Don Cherry.
Middleton was selected by then Rangers GM Emile Francis in the first round of the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft. He had been named the Ontario Hockey Association’s MVP and led the league in scoring with 67 goals and 70 assists while playing for the Oshawa Generals in 1972-73. The next season he moved up to Providence of the AHL where he won Rookie of the Year honors and earned a first team All-Star berth, scoring 36 goals with 48 assists despite missing 13 games due to injuries. He also led the Reds in playoff scoring with nine goals and five assists in 15 games.
Middleton fully credits Bruin coach Don Cherry for helping him become a complete player in Boston. “Don changed my whole philosophy about hockey. I became a complete player because of Don. I always knew how to carry the puck and play offensive hockey but ‘Grapes’ taught me how to be in the right position and I wouldn’t waste any steps. It’s amazing how things worked out when I learned how to do it his way. Even by back-checking I got a lot of offensive opportunities.
“Middleton was as gifted a player as I have ever met,” raved Sanderson. “I met him in his rookie year. I was his centerman and I was stunned at how good he was with the puck and how good he was in the corners. And he went in those corners, he never went in to hit anybody, but he always came out with the puck. And that’s the job isn’t it? Not to run someone over. But Ricky had a deft pair of hands. We used to call him ‘Silky’. He was such a nice kid and he had talent, he should have been rookie of the year.”
In retrospect, it may have been a bad deal for the Rangers but it turned out to be a great move for Middleton. Considering the Rangers’ revolving door of GM’s and Coaches back then, it’s doubtful he would have received the attention or tutelage provided by the Bruins and a great career would have been wasted.
Ferguson was eventually dismissed at the end of the 1977-78 season and replaced by Fred Shero and at last check, neither the Bruins nor the Rangers have any plans of retiring Hodge’s sweater.