By Tony Marquis, Standard Staff
Though it happened decades ago, Terry O’Reilly easily remembers his first fight in professional hockey.
It was 1971 and O’Reilly was fresh out of junior hockey, having spent three years with the Oshawa Generals. He was beginning his first season as a pro, playing for the Boston Bruins’ top farm team, the Boston Braves.
O’Reilly got into a scrap, as he calls them, against the “toughest guy in the American Hockey League.” A brute of a man from Ontario named J. Bob Kelly, who was known as “Battleship.”
“Thank goodness to my naivety, I didn’t know who he was or that he was a fighter,” O’Reilly said. “We ran into each other in a corner and he took offense and dropped his gloves, so I dropped mine and we exchanged a few punches.”
After the period ended, O’Reilly went into the dressing room, greeted by dumbfounded teammates.
“A lot of the guys were sort of looking at me and I said, ‘What, what?’ They said, ‘You don’t know who that was?’ I said, ‘No.’” O’Reilly said. “It’s a good thing. I might have been afraid of him.”
So began an illustrious career as an NHL enforcer. O’Reilly, who had fought just a little in junior hockey, was called up to the Bruins and counted on as a protector for players like Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr. In his first full season, O’Reilly saw action in 72 games and had 109 penalty minutes, second on the team.
In 13 NHL seasons, O’Reilly racked up more than 2,000 penalty minutes, mostly from fighting. Esposito gave O’Reilly the nicknamed “Taz” after the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, for O’Reilly’s tenacious personality.
O’Reilly was fine with the nickname, but he never considered himself an enforcer.
“It was just the way I played the game,” O’Reilly said. “I played it hard. Rough and tumble. You know, get in the corners and hit somebody. Back then, there was no incentive to play with restraint or discipline. If you got body-checked, the coaches, the owners and the general managers expected you to respond with aggression.”
O’Reilly did his best to shed the label. In the 1977-78 season, O’Reilly had 29 goals on his way to a team-high 90 points. But the increase in scoring only inspired more opposing coaches to sick their biggest, baddest young players on O’Reilly.
“We’d go into Quebec, and the coach, Michel Bergeron, he’d call up a new scrapper from the American Hockey League every time we’d come into town,” O’Reilly said. “He’d line him up against me and the guy knew why he was there, so, before the puck hit the ice, he had his gloves off and he was coming after me.”
O’Reilly had 228 fighting majors in his career. He’s not sure of his record in those fights.
“There were some guys that I couldn’t beat,” O’Reilly said. “Even though they would get the better of me in a scrap, we weren’t fighting all the time. And during most periods we would carry the play because the guy couldn’t play hockey.”
In 1978, O’Reilly became the first NHL player to finish in the top 10 in points and penalty minutes. He was the embodiment of what coach Don Cherry called his “Lunchpail A.C.” — a hard-working gang of grinders. O’Reilly’s attitude endeared him to fans. And to his fiercest rivals.
“If I played my game, to chase after a loose puck and body check whoever had possession, then every time I body checked a Philadelphia player in the Spectrum, it was like their gloves were spring-loaded, like a jack-in-the-box — you bump into them and the gloves came off,” O’Reilly said. “And I knew that.
“I knew that if I body-checked Dave Schultz, he was going to challenge me to a fight.”
Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, was one of the ringleaders of the fight-happy Philadelphia Flyers in the ’70s — a team known as the “Broad Street Bullies.”
“If anyone asks who the toughest guy I ever fought was, I’d say Terry O’Reilly,” said Schultz to Yahoo Sports. “It was his job to fight me every time.”
O’Reilly spends most of his time in real estate these days, building and selling commercial and residential property. He lives in Salisbury, Mass. But he’s never too far from the ice.
He says he’s made the transition from Taz to Terry. Turning hockey from a job into a hobby. Other notorious enforcers haven’t been so lucky.
A documentary released this year, called The Last Gladiators, profiles the violent nature of NHL enforcers and their difficulties moving on from the sport. Most of the film is about the up-and-down life of Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, former right-winger from the Montreal Canadiens — who O’Reilly fought a handful of times during their careers.
O’Reilly was interviewed for documentary.
“I don’t know why people have tried to attach it to the tough guy role, maybe for the percentage of tough guys, it’s a little bit higher,” O’Reilly said. “But I’ve seen a lot of people — skill players, role players — they leave the game and they really have trouble finding something else to motivate them as well as the game did.”
O’Reilly does see a shift in the game and predicts that eventually, fighting will be phased out.
“Excellent, exciting hockey, doesn’t necessarily have fighting,” O’Reilly said. “It’s just a matter of time before the owners, the board of governors of the NHL have the courage to say, ‘OK, no more fighting.’”
O’Reilly and 10 other former Boston Bruins players are scheduled to play in an alumni game at Union Arena, March 2 at 3 p.m. Years ago, the last time O’Reilly came to Woodstock for the alumni game, he got hit with a puck in the first minute and had to go to the hospital. The experience hasn’t soured him on the area.
“I love Woodstock,” O’Reilly said.