It was only a year ago that we all were lamenting the deplorable loss of our entire winter sports season. It was like we’d been robbed of our heritage, our honor.
The Bruins were timid and toothless cubbies, cowering in their own long historical shadow. The sight of them being run roughshod over by erstwhile expansion patsies from the Sunbelt was enough to make aging hockey fans weep.
The Celtics were even worse, having become a grubby collection of feckless basketball nomads with no sense of their own glorious tradition. When they were reduced to trying to tank the tail end of last season to improve their chances of landing a high draft pick it was widely agreed that the House of Auerbach had been disgraced.
Nor was this any mere temporary slide from grace. The descent into abject mediocrity had been proceeding insidiously a whole generation; since the heyday of Neely and Bourque with the B’s and the last waltz of Bird and his buddies for the Celts. Savants saw no end in sight. And then the Celts got fleeced out of their precious draft pick by the lottery while the Bruins were doing little to improve themselves. This historical nadir was achieved precisely a year ago with the natives giving thanks on bended knee that football nowadays lasts until February while baseball never ends.
People get aggravated with the wrinkles of modern pro-sport including free agency and contract wars and all sorts of little schemes designed to promote parity in order to artificially stimulate competition. It destroys allegiances making hired guns out of all the better players. But it also makes it possible for teams to rebuild overnight. With the force of parity so strong, the gulf between powerhouses and also-rans is nowhere near as wide as it once was.
So it was with the Celtics who parlayed contract-turmoil and salary cap legerdemain into a couple of off the wall deals that instantly transformed the NBA’s worst team into it’s best. Amazing!
But the ironies are even more overwhelming. What if the NBA’s weird lottery system had not rooked them out of the top draft pick they so richly deserved and plotted endlessly to snare? They would have joyously drafted the latest franchise-center out of Ohio or the alleged can’t-miss power forward out of Texas and there would have been no Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett deals, because there would have been no draft pick to trade for Allen and no impetus to go after Garnett.
It should now amuse you to recall how devastated the town was when the Ping-Pong balls turned up snake eyes for the Green. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth all over the place. Eleven months later it turns out to be the happiest slice of pure luck to fall their way since the NBA’s 1951 bankruptcy sale forced them to take Bob Cousy over the vehement objections of Red Auerbach. Lady Luck, Red’s good buddy who had seemingly split when he did, is apparently back.
Where would they have finished this season if the draft had landed them either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant? They might have been even lousier than last year’s pathetic collection that won only 24 games had they drafted Oden who promptly ravaged his knee. At best they might have inched their way up toward .500. In modern sport, you should be careful what you wish for because you may just get it while appearances are endlessly deceiving.
Which denies Danny Ainge, the chap who sits in Red’s old catbird seat, none of the credit he deserves for his stunning capers which have so far paid off so magnificently. And that includes not just the headline deals but the lesser maneuvers that filled out his roster with a batch of admirable role-players who brought with them the requisite chemistry. Having freely disparaged Ainge a year ago, may I make a point of lauding the job he did in orchestrating this virtual metamorphosis. He had a game plan and he executed it brilliantly. But he was also, mighty, mighty lucky.
As for the Bruins, luck had little to do with it. In fact they prevailed in spite of a near season-long siege of rotten breaks that would have broken the spirit of most teams.
The Bruins are not very good. They lack the necessary depth, experience, offense and good health to go far in these playoffs. They have gotten younger and leaner and have decent prospects but their potential down the road does not leap off the page, if you will. The new regime at the ownership and front office levels remains unproven. Many would be less kind. But then this team has just made the playoffs against all odds. This is hardly the time to drill them.
Most of the credit must go to Coach Claude Julien, a quintessential, straight arrow, hockey lifer from whom precious little was expected. He seemed to be an interim choice, someone to plug the gap while they figured out where they wanted to go after the bitter disappointment of Dave Lewis, last season’s utter disaster. In a league that chews up coaches and on a team that devours them like the French Army once spat out second lieutenants at Verdun, Claude Julien seemed a perfect candidate to take the fall when the Bruins finished hopelessly out of the money.
I can not recall a single pre-season projection that had them making the playoffs. Many experts had them finishing in the lottery, among the league’s first to sixth worst. And that was before they lost their potentially finest player, Patrice Bergeron, for the season in a nasty incident that remains a disgrace to the league. And that was before they lost their most important off-season acquisition, Goalie Manny Fernandez, after he’d played exactly one game, and quite poorly at that. And before they lost Andrew Alberts, their second best defenseman, in another bush league incident involving another Flyers’ guttersnipe. And before they lost a staggering 358 man-games to injury.
They had plenty of opportunities to bail out, plenty of excuses. Julien would have none of it. Even when first Zdeno Chara and then Marc Savard, their top-paid, marquee performers went down in the last month when there was no margin of error left, Julien never flinched, never whined, never strayed. It was an admirable piece of coaching and his scrappy, spunky team well deserves to be in the playoffs, however long it should last.
As luck would have it they draw their ancient enemy from Montreal in the opening round at a time when the hex the Habs relentless waged over the Bruins from the end of World War II to the eve of the first Gulf War seems to be firmly back in place. The Canadiens no longer feature an all-star team glutted with Beliveaus, Geoffrions, and Richards, except when they face the Bruins. Whatever, there is no better sporting theatre than a Bruins-Canadiens Cup joust. It’s a blessing.
Maybe it’s not quite like the old days, at least not yet. But the winter games are back. You should add to the menu the Boston College hockey team’s bid for a national championship at “The Frozen Four” showdown in Denver.
This fine April frolic is hockey’s equivalent of the exaggerated nonsense called “March Madness.” It is saner, more measured, and much more consistent with true amateur sporting principles than the endless and bloated hoop festival. And after a single brilliant weekend, everyone goes back to the library.
It’s another remarkable moment for the extraordinary Jerry York, who sets as high a standard for coaching excellence -- both on and off the field of play -- as you’ll find in all of intercollegiate sport. You’ll recall BC lost the title in the last 19 seconds of play last year. The chance for redemption is at hand. Does it get any better than that?