Hockey's back

The ever-swelling sports seasons all crunch together, these days. It is not grasping and greed that bring on another hockey season so soon after the last one ended. NHL Hockey for the first time in its near century run is a four-season show. Just think it was long wedged into but one and a half.

It has been barely three month since the Bruins hobbled off the sporting stage, battered and bloodied but entirely unbowed, after one of the most fetching seasons in their long and colorful annals and high among the most touching, too. Burning is the memory; almost as if it all happened only yesterday.

In the season that skirted utter disgrace -- featuring a ridiculous labor dispute that ate up more than half the schedule while spawning the bitterest recriminations throughout the ranks -- the good old hockey boys managed in the end to pull off an astonishing about face, elevating their game and redeeming their league which had been teetering on a laughing stock.

The season began with people seriously questioning how much relevance this game still has in our sporting culture and ended with the same people marveling over how brilliantly and heroically it can be played at its summit. It was quite a trick in a mere six months and chief among the stars of this improbable flip-flop were your own Bruins.

If in the end they came up two games short, along the way it was the Bruins who with a timeless stoicism, quite fearless at its best, were invariably involved in the more dazzling moments of what would be widely regarded as a Stanley Cup Saga for the ages. As a contribution to their game and league -- so needing of such a boost after that labor fiasco -- it was priceless.

They did not win the Cup. But they did win a lot of the hearts and minds of those who crave to see character on display in the games they love and who actually believe that how you play the game may be as important as winning. In this tough and relentless but ultimately honest game, people seem to be finding old-fashioned virtues and values they suddenly realize they have sadly missed elsewhere in the world of games to which they devote too much time, tears, and treasure. They see in the Bruins a band of likeable brothers who at their best come as close to personifying all the nice stuff as any team in any game.

For the Bruins, it is a fine tribute offering a terrific moment of fabulous opportunity. The niche they might etch would be different from what the "Big Bad Bruins" of yore accomplished. It might well be every bit as lasting.

Maybe it can never again be as it was 40 odd years ago when a matchless Bobby Orr was the region's Crown Prince and the rowdy likes of Derek Sanderson were the talk of the town. "Jesus saves and Esposito scores on the rebound!" That became the clarion call of a wild and crazy Bruins' frenzy rampant from roughly 1967 to 1974. It got too hot which made it certain to fizzle and maybe in the end the excesses of all that runaway adoration became just a bit silly, even counter-productive.

By comparison, what is happening now seems more mature. The niche being carved out by these latter day Bruins -- those of Messrs. Bergeron and Chara, Lucic and Rask, the Krejcis and Seidenbergs and Thorntons -- may just be rooted in something more substantial.

When Gregory Campbell valiantly struggled to finish his shift by trying to skate on a broken leg a chord was struck all over New England nor was it restricted to the diehards who filled the new Garden when few others gave much of a hoot.

When Patrice Bergeron limped from the ice after bowing gracefully to the Blackhawks then reported directly to a hospital where he spent a couple of weeks repairing his lungs, shoulder, ribs and head, all of New England appreciated that this was something rather rare.

Sports teams -- like companies, institutions, even nations -- struggle endlessly to command such respect. It's the coin of the realm.

With one Cup and a magnificent near hit on their log these Bruins can aspire to claims of dynasty if they reach their potential zenith this season. Beware the competition is mighty stiff.

Three teams -- the Bruins, Blackhawks, and Penguins -- can legitimately aspire to that lofty distinction with a fourth, the Red Wings -- (incidentally, the last to actually achieve it) -- hovering in the wings, as it were. Also aching to crash this inner circle are the LA Kings, who came within a whisker of derailing the Hawks last Spring and the Vancouver Canucks who remain highly talented and full of pretense which they've yet to back up.

These six are the NHL's ranking elite; the iron. All have a nucleus consisting mainly of the sturdy and seasoned very much in their prime. All have size and quickness. Some emphasize speed over brawn; others, vice versa. All are balanced and none can be pushed around. As ever, the wildcard factor that is impossible to foresee let alone calculate is injury. However, all six have one more attribute in common. They are deep. One of them will win the Cup this year. The Bruins -- generally rated third best (behind Chi and Pitt) -- have as good a chance as any.

It's an illustrious field. There may be too many teams in this league and too many playing in towns where hockey will never sell and doesn't belong. Everyone agrees, except the pig-headed commissioner. But talent is not the issue.

There's never been more of it on glittering display; never been more truly deeply skilled players all thrashing in one huge, sprawling and ever expanding international corral. The aforementioned mighty six teams are the most brilliant examples.

But there are a good dozen close enough to have legitimate ambitions; some only a key player or two away. Parity will be smartly on parade more than ever this season. There may even be a pushover or two out there somewhere but they'll be hard to find. In terms of talent, this game as rendered in the National Hockey League has never been in better shape.

For once, as has rarely been the case, since the mid-Sixties it's a league that finally also has its act together off the ice; in the boardrooms and and union halls. Peace reigns! It's virtually guaranteed for a decade. Will wonders never cease? Profits are mounting. Soon, so will the salary cap. Maybe the wretched price everyone was made to pay with that dreadful labor fiasco was worth it. Maybe!

Where do the Bruins figure to ultimately land within this happy scenario, you ask? Prophecy being the least of our skills, we won't go there.

But there is confidence in the fact that their nucleus is mainly young, strong, tough, and healthy for one that's so seasoned and tested. There's also confidence the new boys -- Iginla, Ericksson, Soderberg, Smith -- will surpass what might have been expected from the departed -- Horton, Seguin, Jagr, Peverly. Other departures particularly hurt. Classy Andrew Ference brought vital intangibles to the cause. But Tuukka Rask can even get better in goal. They are deep on defense. Coach Claude Julien is admirable, on every level.

If there's a caveat to muddle this pristine prospectus it's the fact that the heart of this team, Zdeno Chara, though clearly near invincible, is nonetheless 36. And Patrice Bergeron, literally the soul of the team, has had four concussions. Beware the ides of injury!

We don't need to go there, either. Not now! Drop the puck? And hang on!