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The other night the chaps who preside on the NHL’s nice but obscure television network were waxing extensively about the Bruins rise and the boost it has given to the game in the alleged Athens of America and its environs. And one of the savants remarked, “I’ve always believed Boston is the best hockey town in America.” Sorry mate, but you are wrong; dead wrong.
What the sudden rush of enthusiasm for the battered old black and gold franchise does verify once again -- as if such were necessary -- is that no fans anywhere ride a bandwagon with more righteous pride or shameless effrontery than the disparate mob stretching from Eastport to Block Island and across to the Connecticut River that has Boston as its hub and dotes on all the games that are played.
In this vast mosaic, hockey maintains no more than a gritty and stubborn beachhead. Diehard hockey people do have a love affair with their game and are implacably loyal. They survive hereabouts. But not all of them are fiercely attached to the professional game and in the end they are but a thin minority vastly outnumbered by the bellicose devotees of the other games whose bandwagons -- as you well know -- have been in high gear lately. Nor have they always been gracious about all that.
Hockey has suffered over the last roughly 15 years and if the region were as hockey loving as is widely believed it would never have gotten as bad as it did. In the giddy ascendance of the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics, the Bruins have been scorned as the odd-team-out with their beloved game being used as a punching bag by little, smarty-pants, talk-show, boys overloaded with riches and therefore in need of something or somebody to pick on. It hasn’t been pretty. Nor is the sight now of them all coming out of the woodwork in search of a seat on the wagon.
Worthy of a particularly hearty round of snickers was an effusive puff-piece on the Bruins revival early in December in the Globe. It was adoring mush positioned right under the masthead of the Sunday paper and graced with the headline, “The icemen returneth” and it argued that Claude Julien’s plucky kids are ‘making an old hockey town believe again.’ Seemed odd coming from the folks who have treated the subject with icy indifference for an entire generation.
Apologies to old pal Kevin DuPont, one of the two or three Globies who has bucked the tide and kept the game alive in the pages of the self-proclaimed ‘newspaper of record’. But Boston is not ‘the Hub of Hockey’ in this country and hasn’t been for a long time.
Detroit makes a much better case. There were a lot of dead years between the eras of Howe-Sawchuck and Yzerman-Lidstrom yet the Wings never sagged as much in the public esteem there as the Bruins did here. Chicago with but one championship from its Blackhawks in the last 73 years and Manhattan where the Rangers have won only once in 69 years have also been far more constant in their affections; suffering more aggravation with less resentment. The best hockey town in the universe remains Toronto, where they haven’t won anything in 40 years yet are as obsessed as ever. Boston doesn’t suffer losers as graciously as Chicago and even New York do, let alone Toronto. Must have something to do with some sort of complex.
Whatever, the more important matter is the question of whether or not this happy surge in affection for the Bruins has been premature or -- heaven help us -- misplaced. Pity the Bruins if the latter should prove to be the case. The talk show harpies will never forgive them. At the all-star break, the accepted mid-point of the season, the answer is unclear and growing more so.
Yes, the first half was magnificent. The Bruins have had power-houses over the ages but none of them, not even the wonderful pre-war juggernaut Art Ross put together or Harry Sinden’s “Big Bad Bruins” of the Bobby Orr incarnation, had a better first half than this year’s edition.
Coach Julien’s troopers were unbeaten for two months at home and nearly one month on the road while running off the team’s longest win streak since Nixon was president. In December they were 12-1, outscoring opponents 56-27. They vied neck and neck, with the regal Wings and Sharks for the top record in the NHL’s endless domain and never blinked. At the halfway point, they had scored the most goals while allowing the fewest. It doesn’t get any better than that. The bad news is, it was only the first half.
The NHL regular season is a brutal, near mindless grind; the most demanding in professional sport, in my opinion. Few properly appreciate the awful ordeal of sustaining the furious pitch necessary to play so fast-paced and hard-hitting a game and stay on top from the beginning of October to the end of May while rambling from Vancouver to Miami, Montreal to Anaheim. Take a look at the Bruins schedule. Seven games in 11 days in October. Ten in 18 in November. Seven in 11 days coming up in February. Then in March, when everyone is spent and parched, they have a run of eight games in 13 days, crisscrossing the continent from Phoenix to Ottawa, quickly followed by a West Coast trip. The NHL doesn’t have a season. It has a gauntlet.
Which is why a lot of cagey, veteran teams try to pace themselves before the break. The Bruins, having a lot to prove not only to their fans but themselves, did not have that luxury. It happens every year. Last season the Ottawa Senators got off to a sizzling start and, fired by the rocket line of Heatley, Spezza & Alfredsson, roared through the first half leaving many in awe. One year later the Senators are in last place and looking to dump fat contracts. Are this year’s Bruins last year’s Senators? It is possible.
At the break, the log of the injured becomes as noteworthy as the win-loss numbers. For the Bruins, the wounds pile up. The kids they call up impress but there’s a limit. Moreover, experience becomes vital. They limped to the break with seven key performers -- Sturm, Bergeron, Lucic, Ference, Ward, Kessel and Fernandez -- hors de combat.
The forward corps is ravaged. Marco Sturm, a gifted sniper, is finished for the season. Patrice Bergeron, the league’s latest victim of mysterious concussion syndrome, may be. Phil Kessel, a manchild on the brink of stardom, has “mono”, an ominous malaise in this grueling game. They better hope whatever ails rock-ribbed Milan Lucic is minor.
But it is on defense that they are thinnest and it’s also where Cups are won or lost. The need to deal for a steady and smart defenseman may be inevitable and they don’t come cheap. Then we’ll see if the new G.M. boy from Harvard has the right stuff. Meanwhile, he may regret having given away Milan Jurcina and Andrew Alberts.
The real season is just beginning. We’ll discover soon enough if their lovely first half is truly the declaration of a genuine hockey renaissance in these parts or just another tender illusion, the latest false alarm. We’ve had a few of those over the years, you know.
But not under the watch of Coach Claude Julien. He’s the best acquisition the new regime has made; an old pro flushed with genuine hockey wisdom, common sense, and old-fashioned gravitas. Julien inspires hope. So does Tim Thomas, the engagingly modest goalie who may be the best untold sports story in this town.
For those who are back on the bandwagon the weeks ahead loom as exciting. For those who never left the sensation runs much deeper. Kindred spirits understand. Those who are not, never could.