Rubin: This is Hockey Country
By Dan Rubin
Sometime back in November, I made the observation to friends of mine that this Boston Bruins team wasn’t capable of going anywhere. I said they lacked a killer instinct, their coach was nincompoop, their captain was an oaf and their best offensive weapon was a few months removed from having his head turned into three different flavors of pudding.
Fast forward to May, and I’m about to do something I’ve never done. I’m about to say three words that I have a hard time saying, that my girlfriend rarely, if ever, hears me say, and one that my friends never hear me say: I was wrong.
When my friend Stevie G said, “This is the year,” I told him that it wasn’t. When one of my fellow sports broadcasters said to let Claude Julien work out the year and if nothing happened to fire him, I crucified the opinion. When I was told that the Boston Bruins were a team prepared for the playoffs, I said they’d get Montreal in the first round and be out in five. And now, I’m admitting the fault that I, like always, am completely, 100% mistaken.
I’ve said it about four dozen times. “Claude Julien is a terrible coach,” I said. “They will never go far in this playoffs with him behind the helm.”
Well, egg on my face.
Claude has pushed this team through his style (whatever that style is), and as of right now, it’s worked. I said to play Tyler Seguin over Michael Ryder, Chris Kelly’s broken face and Daniel Paille. They all responded with career-defining games… IN THE SAME PLAYOFFS. They did it within four games of each other too, I think.
So, Dan’s going to take a back seat, throw up his hands and admit defeat on this one. Although, I still think Claude’s a moron, but whatever he’s doing is clearly working. Even if he constantly has the look on his face that says, “Hey, I ordered a large fry and where the heck is it?” I still have to admit – the guy has done the job and has earned another year on his contract.
I would keep him. There, I said it. Now excuse me while I go slam my head off a wall.
Any who, the last time the Bruins made the conference finals, their starting goalie was Andy Moog. They lost to a Pittsburgh Penguins team led by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and the immortal Kevin Stevens. They played in the Wales Conference in the Adams Division, and they called the old Boston Garden home. It was the last time the Minnesota North Stars would make the playoffs and other teams in that bracket that year included the Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets.
At a ripe old age of six, I still hadn’t watched a hockey game because I was still focusing on Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. It was during that summer that the greatest assembly of basketball talent took place, when the “Dream Team” won the gold medal in Barcelona.
In fact, I was a full two years away from even watching hockey, since my first hockey series I watched was the epic Rangers-Devils clash in 1994.
For years, before the current economic structure, the Bruins were hamstrung by poor management. Players came and went in Boston, if only because Boston was never really good enough to win the big one because of the owners’ desire to not spend the requisite money to keep the best players. When players got too expensive, they left. The revolving door led to the Blaine Lacher experiment, the Jason Allison/Anson Carter era, as well as the steady decline of the tradition.
We are a full 11-seasons removed from the last time Raymond Bourque dressed in a Bruins sweater and a full 15-years since Cam Neely dressed in black and gold. Even Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov were sent packing out of town almost five years ago.
But Boston is indeed a hockey town.
High schools never had a problem drawing crowds for the state’s Super 8 Tournament, which is a time-honored tradition that many young men take part in every year, while the Beanpot is another staple.
Kids grow up in New England playing on frozen ponds in the winter and even though the Bruins weren’t the center of attention, it’s certainly fair to say that hockey has always been an important staple in many New Englanders lives.
So now the Bruins go to a place that many fans don’t remember because they weren’t alive or too young to remember. This is a new feeling, one that was teased to them during the last two seasons. Now, they’ve reached the conference finals with a chance to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy and they’re coming back in droves to the team and tradition they once left behind.
This is something that’s been dormant for years at this point – a trip back to relevance of hockey. The Bruins have ushered the Celtics and Patriots, along with the mighty Red Sox off the front page. This is their town and their moment because instead of talking about Carl Crawford’s low batting average or asking if Shaq can make any type of impact for the Celtics in the postseason, the top stories will be about the Bruins exorcising past demons, vanquishing the ghosts of Montreal and Philadelphia.
Sports talk radio shows will lace up skates, tie down the jerseys and take to the ice. After years where hockey was reduced to one-minute segments of the midday, they’ll be top stories on Monday.
The big thing about this run for the Bruins is that the “pink hat” mentality gets ushered off center stage. The city made such a big deal about the history of the Red Sox during their run in the mid-2000s. And for years beforehand, fans relived every heartbreaking moment. Movies were made, documentaries enduring the images of ghosts. Fake, fair-weather fans could jump on the bandwagon and break the territory just by turning on HBO. It became a cash cow that the team not only embraced but also enhanced. They soaked up every dollar until the hardcore baseball fan became jaded and washed out. Now, going to a Red Sox game is like going to a tourist stop in Boston, with real fans reduced to watching games at home or dimly lit bars throughout the Commonwealth.
The Bruins are different. Lacking the major coverage because of hockey’s place as a niche sport, the fair-weather fan knows not of Joe Juneau, Jozef Stumpel, or Adam Oates. Dave Poulin and Bobby Carpenter aren’t names they’ll soon think about, and there is no folk hero in Craig Janney or Don Sweeney that can match the Luis Tiants and Bill Lees of the world. While they enjoy popularity now unlike any they’ve ever seen, most fair-weather fans can’t name a Bruin outside of Neely and Bobby Orr. And even then, they have no idea what Bobby Orr did.
Instead, Bruins and hockey tradition is passed, like a family heirloom, through generations. With the working-class nature of Boston’s past, the spirit of hockey was passed from father to son. The merits of the game, extolled through hard work, dedication, and pouring blood, sweat, and tears, are what make this great. You don’t know it unless you’re in it. There is no room for fair-weather fans in this sport. Orr, Phil Esposito, John Bucyk, Johnny “Pie” MacKenzie, and Ken Hodge wouldn’t have any of it.
And that’s what makes this run so refreshing. The Bruins’ return to relevance is a refreshing trip back into a sport that stakes its claim through its biggest supporters. Markets in Boston, Detroit, and Vancouver turn their nose at the southern; non-hockey markets, and the next series against the Tampa Bay Lightning will be as much about that mentality as it is about a game on the ice. Hockey purists are pulling for Boston to win because it’s our game. We owned it back when there were only seven teams, back before even the Original Six, and back before hockey in Florida was ever heard of.
One last thing – my grandfather and father watched hockey growing up. My grandfather took the street car from Malden to Boston to watch Milt Schmidt, Dit Clapper, and the Kraut Line. He watched them win Stanley Cups back in the pre-Original Six era. He used to tell me stories about sitting behind the Bruins net, watching hockey back before even my dad was a glint in his eye. And my father tells me stories of watching the Big, Bad Bruins, of watching Orr, Esposito, and Terry O’Reilly. He tells me about Stan Jonathan, Don Cherry, Brad Park, and the immortal Derek Sanderson. These are names that fair-weather fans have never heard about, and these are names that hockey fans are territorial and protective of.
I want the Bruins to win for them. I want them to see one title to link three generations in my family. I want to be able to have something to pass onto my children, to keep the memories of hockey alive. Tampa Bay can’t compete with that, and neither can many of the remaining hockey markets in this playoffs. I want to add another car to the freight train of hockey tradition in a region where kids grow up with skates and sticks, on frozen ponds and in early morning practices. I want to add the names of Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Tim Thomas, Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron, and even Marc Savard (perhaps a modern day answer to Normand Leveille?) to that list in Boston hockey lore.
And I want to win because this is something we’ve wanted for a long, long time, bordering now on 40 years.
This is a hockey region. This is our game. Tampa – we’re coming.