Back to the real winter sport

Back in the good old days, in the glorious era of the so-called "Original Six" (although there was never any such thing), the National Hockey League strove to have its winter game -- including the run for the precious Stanley Cup -- entirely over and done with as near as possible to Easter, the de facto unveiling of true spring. And more often than not, they succeeded.

It was so much more logically crisp and orderly that way. Fabulous as the show was a year ago, having the Finals reach crescendo little more than a week before the Fourth of July was somehow countercultural. Hockey in late and very warm June is no more appropriate than baseball in bleak and dour November which, by the way, is also inevitable.

It was, of course, the NHL's latest infantile labor dispute that gave us last year's ridiculous situation. This year we'll have the Winter Olympics to blame as hockey's post season stretches toward the middle of June. One of these years the NHL will somehow regain control of its own destiny and find a way to finish its business in May, only a month later than ought be the case. But that can happen only if they resist further expansion, avoid adding more games to the regular season, and decline stitching on another playoff round for "wildcard" tilts; all of which has been suggested, alas.

This dumb thinking does more than distort the natural cycle of sporting seasons. It exerts an outrageous burden on the players. With the tempo and intensity of the games greatly ratcheted up as the regular season ends and post season approaches, NHL hockey gets awfully demanding to play. Pile on top of that an insane schedule and you have an ordeal that gives new meaning to the term ''grueling,'' bordering on the "gruesome." It's not so much the fittest that survive in the end as the luckiest.

Consider that in the last 42 days of this regular season the Bruins will have been obliged to play 23 games as a tune-up to the marathon playoff gauntlet which can, if every series goes roughly to the limit (and most do), have them warring near every other night for up to two months, with only a couple of days off between one series and the next. That's if you are lucky. Keep in mind that threading though all of this is hideously demanding travel which can include transcontinental jumps, all of it laced with such complications as weather, etc.

There is NOTHING in all of sport more mindlessly arduous than the end of the season death march of the National Hockey League. It is totally a war of attrition.

As we speak, we're smack at the start of this annual, wild and crazy siege. As this is written, there are five weeks to go to the playoffs. Sizzling on a five-game winning streak -- their longest of the season -- the Bruins have essentially clinched a playoff post, have a near vice-like grip on top spot in their division, and at last have surmounted the 16-team Eastern Conference heap after chasing the Penguins since October. They are the league's hottest team, having lost only two of their last 18 games (with three OT points).

It's a struggle to find something to complain about. They're as healthy as they've been since the first fortnight of the season. Deep and balanced, all four lines are clicking. They probably have the league's best third and fourth lines. The power play is the sharpest it's been in a decade. The penalty-kill has its act back together. The overall young and short on experience defense, though depleted by injury, grows more mature by the week. There those who think their goal-tending has become the NHL's best, and it's surely at least the equal of any. The coach has total command and commands total respect. A rare team that's as tough away as at home, they're 7-0-3 in their last 10 road-games. Impressive! Praise of their fundamentally smart and disciplined play flows from all points on the hockey compass. They're prominent in the small cluster of teams all the pundits agree will vie for The Cup.

Let's put it this way. In their nice revival of recent years that's so far featured the winning of one Cup and darn near another, the Bruins have not looked better; certainly not in the course of the regular season. You may have forgotten how they were scratching around in a win-one lose-one muddle at this time last season. This year's team is decidedly more focused. Moreover, it's a team built for playoff hockey with its emphasis on tight defense, a grinding style, total discipline, and devotion to detail. Who could ask for anything more, eh?

Okay, so now it's time for the "on the other hand" stuff, if you will.

Whenever I find myself getting carried away with cockeyed optimism for the prospects of the Boston Bruins or get swept up in their rave notices or both; I make myself go back to the spring of 1971 when the team that couldn't possibly lose shockingly did. I was there for every bit of it and don't rank it among my most pleasant sporting memories.

You too may remember it well. The 1970-71 Bruins were at the utter height of the fabulous Orr-Esposito epoch. "Big and Bad," they were called, and with their fire-wagon style of convulsive offense spiced with legendary spirit sometimes lapsing into an outlandish bravura, they were the greatest show on ice.

Phil Esposito scored 76 goals. Bobby Orr had 102 assists. Four players -- Brothers Bucyk and Hodge as well -- had over 100 points. All four were named first-team all-stars. Winning a team-record 57 games they were the first NHL team to win more than 50. They could do no wrong. They won 27 straight at home. Espo had seven hat tricks. One game, Hodge had six assists. One night, they scored three goals in 20 seconds. All season, near his last with reasonably functioning knees, Master Orr was simply divine.

And then in the first round of the playoffs they lost to Montreal in seven bitter and faintly unbelievable games; stashed by a hitherto unknown goalie out of Cornell, Kennie Dryden, and a veteran Canadiens cast hardly as talented but greatly more disciplined, led by the august Jean Beliveau in his grand farewell. Glorieux!

The 1970-71 season remains for me the eternal caveat. From that point on I presume nothing.

You might feel a lot more cheeky about Bruins' post season prospects this year if Dennis Seidenberg had not been wasted in mid-season by what I thought at the time was a bit of a cheap shot by an Ottawa roughneck. The rugged German defenseman has been the team's most under-rated player and a playoff gem when pared with Zdeno Chara in a wonderful shut-down defense combo that was quite the best since the Horton-Stanley, Baun-Brewer pairings Punch Imlach deployed in Toronto back when the Leafs were winning many Cups in the sixties.

Gallant, gritty, rock-ribbed defense is what wins in the end. Without Seidenberg, the Bruins don't win the Cup three years ago. Without Seidenberg, the Bruins don't make the Finals last year. And now they're without Seidenberg, until next season. Oh my!

Interesting, is the remedy GM Peter Chiarelli has concocted. In his only meaningful trade-deadline move, the Harvard boy obtained the hefty, 28 year-old Slovokian defenseman and comrade of the estimable Chara, Andres Meszaros, from Philadelphia for the nominal price of a third round draft-pick. The deal was not universally praised and there's legitimate reason to wonder why the arch-foe Flyers would give him to the Bruins if he had much left in the tank.

But at least two rather colorfully outsized pundits whom I nonetheless greatly respect -- Barry Melrose and Don Cherry -- say it's a great move. In fact my old friend Grapes predicts Meszaros will prove to be a "true Bruin." And if ever a man knew one when he saw one it is Grapes.

We had best hope so. In the gauntlet that lies ahead, the premium will be on grit and guts with all hands on deck disporting same. As never before!

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