Rick Middleton is known to a generation of Boston Bruins fans as a skilled right winger whose play embodied his nickname – “Nifty” – and who scored nearly 1,000 points in his NHL career, but he’ll enter the Hall of Fame as a coach thanks to one amazing triumph in 2002.
In 2001, Middleton had been out of pro hockey for 13 years when he was contacted by a friend of his from the U.S. National Ski Team. The friend mentioned that the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team was seeking a coach for the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Middleton applied for the job and got it, knowing he had an enormous task. The Americans had only won one game – a consolation game – four years earlier in Nagano, and had fared poorly at the recent World Championships. They would be seeded sixth of six teams at the 2002 Games, where Norway and Canada were considered big favorites.
“It was an eye-opener for me,” said Middleton. “I’d never really been around disabled people in my life. I wondered things like, ‘Should I hold the door for them?’ In fact, it was the opposite that was true. They were so able, it’s scary.”
Middleton, who has called Hampton home since 1997, needed to build team chemistry and get his team to play better positional hockey. He wanted his team to get better at cycling the puck on offense to extend possessions and play an ‘I’ formation on defense to reduce the number of breakaways allowed.
“Rick did a remarkable job in bringing the players together, rebuilding their self-confidence, and devising new offenses and defensive strategies,” said Rich DeGlopper, then the president of the U.S. Sled Hockey Association.
The Americans outscored their six opponents 26-6, beating Norway, 4-3, in a shootout in the gold-medal game with Kip St. Germaine scoring the winning goal. The Americans have since medaled in every Paralympics, becoming the first country to win back-to-back gold medals in 2010 and ’14.
In Boston, playing on some excellent Bruins teams, he had five straight seasons of at least 40 goals and 90 points. In 1981-82 he scored a career-high 51 goals and won the Lady Byng Trophy for excellence and sportsmanship.