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Best backup goalie ever? Ross Brooks recalls 1970s stint with Bruins fondly

03.21.13 at 11:58 am ET

PROVIDENCE — Ross Brooks keeps a photo of Bobby Orr above his desk, even in the temporary trailer office to which he’€™s been exiled while Providence College’s Schneider Arena is remodeled. Forty years after he first stood in goal for the Bruins as a 35-year-old rookie, Brooks hasn’€™t forgotten the sight of his name above a locker room stall alongside those of Orr, Phil Esposito and the rest of the storied early ’70s Bruins.

“The biggest thing was looking around the room and seeing all those names on the seats — Esposito, [Ken] Hodge, Dallas Smith, Terry O’€™Reilly — you could just go around the room. And then I saw my name,” Brooks said. “And I just stared at it for a while, and you almost want to pinch yourself to make sure that it’€™s right.”

Brooks spent three seasons — 1972-73 to 1974-75 — with the Bruins, playing in 54 games. He posted goals-against averages of 2.64, 2.36 and 2.98, respectively, and in the ‘€™73-74 season he tied an NHL record with 14 consecutive wins. He finished that year with a 16-3 record, serving as the backup to Gilles Gilbert.

It all happened rather suddenly. Brooks broke into the NHL at age 35 after a 12-year minor league journey that took him from Phoenix to Rochester. Despite his stellar statistics, he spent just three seasons in the league, retiring when Gerry Cheevers returned to the Bruins from the World Hockey Association.

‘€œIn hindsight, you’€™d wish that had happened at 21 years of age, but you know what? At least it happened,’€ Brooks said of his chance with the Bruins.

Despite never earning a starting job, Brooks maintained patience and a good attitude, according to Orr. The two have kept in touch over the years and still golf together from time to time.

“Sometimes, being a backup, they’€™re unhappy all the time and moaning and groaning, and that wasn’€™t Ross,” Orr said. “Ross was a great team guy. Everybody loved him, and when he was called upon to play, obviously, by his record, he played very well for us. ‘€¦ He’€™s a fun guy. He’€™s a jokester, and we always had a lot of fun.”

Brooks, 75, now is the arena manager at Providence College. His longest minor league stop involved seven seasons with the AHL’€™s Providence Reds, and with a few interruptions he’€™s been based there ever since. Even as a Bruin, he made the 45-minute commute from the Providence area and says he was only late for practice in Boston once.

Brooks credits the Reds with making his NHL career possible — by firing him during the 1970-71 season. That led him to finish out the year with the CHL’€™s Oklahoma City Blazers, then a farm team of the Bruins. He attended training camp with the Blazers, the AHL Boston Braves and the Bruins the next year in London, Ontario. There, then-Bruins GM Milt Schmidt liked the way he played, and the Braves signed him.

Brooks said he didn’€™t change his style of play in between being cut and being signed again (“In those days, the style you had was the style you got”), but that Boston’€™s faith in him gave him the motivation and confidence to play better.

“You want to do it even more so because somebody did give you a chance,” Brooks said. “You look at the team you’€™re on and you say, ‘I can’€™t screw this up.’ ”

As a Brave, Brooks played 34 games, the most he had started since 1962-63 with the EHL’€™s Philadelphia Ramblers, and recorded a 3.01 goals-against average. He also got the chance to stick it to the team that gave up on him, and distinctly recalls winning the start he made back in Providence against the Reds.

The Braves played at the Boston Garden, and although they didn’€™t pack it the way the Bruins did, Brooks was impressed by crowds of a size he hadn’€™t seen anywhere else in the minors. But even that couldn’€™t prepare him for the first time he took the ice in a Bruins sweater, an experience he describes as “seventh heaven.”

“I don’€™t think a lot of guys take it for granted, because it’€™s so hard to get there,” Brooks said. “And then when you get there, you really realize it’€™s worth all the aggravation.”

Starting at the Garden was nerve-wracking at first, Brooks said, but nothing was as memorable as his second Bruins start, which he made at Maple Leaf Gardens in his native city of Toronto. He remembers giving up a goal on the first shot he faced, through the 5-hole, but he held on for the rest of the game to secure the win with his parents in the stands.

“My poor mother, she walked the concourse through the whole third period. She couldn’€™t watch it,” Brooks said. “That would have to be the biggest thrill. Winning the first game, playing at home, against the Maple Leafs, with your parents there — what the hell more could it be?”

Brooks never started more than 21 games as a Bruin, but Orr said the team knew he’€™d give them a chance to win when the took the ice, no matter how long it had been since his last start.

“To have that guy that can sit for a long period, and then put him in and play the way he played ‘€¦ that made it very good for the No. 1 guy,” Orr said. “It was pretty good when you could put your backup guy in and not have to worry.”

At 38, Brooks knew his time had come when Cheevers returned, and he moved on. He coached high school hockey for a time, worked for the Providence Bruins, and even operated a bar/restaurant for 15 years. He took the job running Schneider Arena 11 years ago.

The photo of Orr above Brooks’ desk is a rare splash of black and gold in an office full of Providence Friars logos (and a Canadian flag magnet on the filing cabinet). Brooks watches all the Friars’€™ home games and has plenty to say about goalies around New England, from Providence freshman standout Jon Gillies to Tuukka Rask to Tim Thomas.

Like many Bruins fans, his admiration for Thomas’€™ goaltending is tempered by his opinions on Thomas’€™ off-ice decisions.

“The White House thing was a big mistake,” Brooks said. “I don’€™t care if you don’€™t like the guy, or you’€™re not a Democrat or whatever — you’€™re a team.

“These guys would have made him go,” he added, gesturing to Orr’€™s picture. ” ‘You’€™re going. We’€™re all going.’ And he could have sat in the back of the room. He could have gone to the washroom. He could have done a lot of things, and then just left, like everybody.”

He’€™s enjoying watching the Bruins this season, but Brooks is even more pleased about another recent hockey-related development: his 6-year-old grandson has begun learn-to-skate classes and recently skated with a stick for the first time, clad in a new Bruins jersey with his name on the back.

Although he’€™s proud to see his grandson skate in black and gold, Brooks also remains a devout Leafs fan, which complicates matters when the Northeast Division rivals play.

“Both,” Brooks said with a laugh when asked who he roots for in those situations. “If I was watching the game in Toronto, I’€™d be cheering for the Leafs. If I was in Boston, I’€™d be cheering for Boston.

“It’€™s pretty hard to root against a team when they’€™ve taken such good care of you,” he went on. “You can never forget who brought you to the dance.”

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