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Opinion
Winter games

By Clark Booth
Posted: 2/16/2007

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Mark this as the third annual What have they done to Boston’s glorious winter sports’ tradition? column. It is offered as the disgraceful demise of the Celtics and Bruins approaches epic levels of chagrin, leaving only the question: “When do they send in the clowns?”

As of this writing, the Celtics’ eye-popping, jaw-dropping, losing streak has reached a staggering 18 straight frightful fiascoes. As Yogi Berra might have said, “It’s a good thing Red Auerbach didn’t live to see this because it woulda killed him.”

As for the Bruins, they technically retain a pulse in the brave new NHL world where a prevailing parity drags all 30 franchises into a twilight zone of abject mediocrity. With more than two months to go, the Bruins are eight points out of the last playoff berth with two games in hand. But if you buy into the preposterous notion that this is a playoff quality team I’ve got some swampland on an abandoned atomic waste site for sale and it’s cheap. Bruins management acknowledged the grim reality with the ill-advised Brad Stuart trade, which -- alas -- may only be the first move the grossly under-experienced and overmatched new front office has in mind. Can it get any worse for the much-touted “Hub of Hockey”? But of course!

Disgust with the Bruins is rampant. They are the objects of scorn. This though they are at least a team (as of this writing) that has won as many as it has lost. The Celtics, on the other hand, are pathetic and clearly making a mockery of what was once the second-grandest tradition in all of American sport.

The Celtics are 2-23 since the holidays, 26 games under .500, 40 games behind the Dallas Mavericks, regularly enduring humiliations at the hands of players they have foolishly dumped, hapless at home, and hopeless on the road. Yet their ownership and management -- though plainly even more inept than the runaway incompetence the Bruins feature -- gets spared the raw contempt routinely visited upon the hockey boys. Public comment on the Celtics is relatively sympathetic and understanding. They retain a semblance of respect from the media while banging out their home games. Even GM Danny Ainge, whose stewardship has been a joke, escapes recriminations. Frankly, I just don’t get it.

But if the Celtics and their remarkably forgiving clientele think an atrocious season can still be the gateway to the Promised Land they’d be well advised to consult their own history. It remains one of the most extraordinary ironies in the annals of American sport that the loss of a draft lottery game involving bloody Ping-Pong balls was the final crushing blow to Red’s fabulous dynasty. It’s ridiculous to blame M. L. Carr for losing the lottery game and thereby losing Tim Duncan after the Celtics had debased themselves by pulling every trick in the book to finish dead-last in a bid for the top draft pick in 1996. What more could he have done but stand there and look bemused?

On the other hand, do you think for half a second they would not have landed Duncan had it been Auerbach doing the honors that day in New Jersey? He was already old and hardly in the mood for such nonsense. Nonetheless, they should have sent Red to do the job. It would have been the last fabulous twist in his legend.

Now, more Ping-Pong balls are about to shape the Celtics’ future. But there are two other teams -- Memphis and Philadelphia -- that are equally wretched. Even more to the point, there is no guarantee that the much touted top pick -- a raw, seven-foot, teenage, man-child from Ohio State -- is anywhere near the savoir Duncan has proven to be. Still, if there’s a road to redemption it can only run through the draft. If I were the Celtics I’d invoke all of what’s left of their historical karma and have Bill Russell and Bob Cousy represent them at the lottery gig. In the name of Red, of course.

Meanwhile back with the Bruins, we have the latest travesty; the deal that sent their best trading chips to Calgary for a pair of modest journeymen few have ever heard of. One is injured and will apparently be of little help in the immediate crunch. The other was a healthy scratch just last week. Could that have been the game the Bruins scouted? Or do they even bother anymore? Chalk it up as another public relations disaster.

As long as they had Brad Stuart the Bruins could plausibly argue that the Joe Thornton deal was not a complete disaster. Stuart is a good defenseman with superior potential. For sure, there’s a gap between fact and promise and it goes back to his days as a teenage phenom. Never was that more evident than this season when he displayed an angry but ill-disciplined and sometimes unfocused edge, his play sometimes aggravating as he piled up a ludicrous -23 rating. But then on the sorry mess that the Bruins have become it was no big deal.

The point, however, persists that defensemen of Stuart’s skills -- size, speed, instinct, and competitive resolve all topped with a fine streak of nastiness -- are so hard to find that you give up on them with only the greatest reluctance. Only a Thornton could have pried Stuart away from San Jose. It should have taken a helluva lot more than anonymous blokes named Ference and Kobasew to induce the Bruins to trade him to Calgary along with the gritty Wayne Primeau as the third annual Causeway Street desperation fire sale moves into high gear.

What in the name of Eddie Shore are they thinking? Or is that a contradiction in terms? Do they have a plan? Peter Chiarelli, the rather invisible new boy from Harvard who is allegedly in charge, doesn’t seem inclined to offer explanations. One can only pray that’s not because he has none, although his earlier deal sending the large and once promising defenseman, Milan Jurcina, to Washington for a fourth-round pick was also fairly pointless. Vague talk about impending free-agent defections has been floated as an excuse for these timid gestures. But Chiarelli needs to know people don’t want to hear that stuff anymore. He must also recognize that if he feels obliged to dump talent like Stuart to avoid contract battles his team has only just begun to hit the skids. From a distance, Chiarelli looks scared. And with good reason.

I could be wrong. But somewhere, somehow -- on a solid team featuring the decent coaching he certainly wasn’t getting in Boston -- I am convinced Brad Stuart will blossom into a star. He has the potential (that loaded term again) to be among the league’s best dozen or so defensemen. In the long run, I believe he’ll turn out to be a better investment than Zdeno Chara who, I further insist, the Bruins grossly over-paid. Chara is not the player he is depicted to be in the local press. But then the ink-stained wretches need something positive to write about. One can understand all that. Chara better improve because the Bruins are stuck with him. No other team in the league -- and there are a lot of dumb ones -- would touch his contract.

I’m prepared to admit that Ference and Kobasew, who I confess I have rarely seen play, could have unsuspected depth. But their meager stats and modest reputations coupled with the yawns of the hockey pundits suggest otherwise. What I do know absolutely is that Brad Stuart can play this game. Is he all he should be? No! But the raw essence is there and it is substantial. The deal that sends him packing will be disparaged as much as the deal that brought him here to begin with. You can take that to the bank.

And so, on and on it goes. Winters around here just ain’t what they used to be.