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Icy times

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Clark
Booth

What a time it was!

How dandy to have Boston again the epicenter of the grand old game of ice hockey this happy spring.

A remarkable season played out with memorable dash and verve led inexorably to a wild and wacky clash for the tradition's finest bauble with the champions emerging from our own backyard. Wow! Glorious New England, de facto crown capital of the sporting world, claims supremacy to yet another title in yet another dodge.

Congratulations, Providence College. Your triumph might have been the biggest upset in championship college sport since tiny Center College knocked mighty Harvard off the top of the collegiate football heap back about a hundred years ago. And congratulations to you too, Boston University. Your shocking meltdown may be momentarily painful but you'll find it's done little to diminish your shining legacy in this college game.

What counts most is that in the end the sporting theatre you guys orchestrated was simply grand. Even the staunchest BU adherents had to be charmed -- (albeit after wiping away tears) -- at the joy this so improbable moment brought to those gallant and upstart Friars. They were bonkers! It doesn't get any merrier than that, as you BU folks well know having been there many times. You've all done yourselves mighty proud.

On the other hand we have the Boston Bruins, another notable hockey team representing our bejeweled little corner of the world. As luck would have it they too were having their season's defining moment at the very same hour. Talk of your studies in contrast!

It's equally hard and unfair to come down resoundingly on the Bruins on the infrequent occasions this historically gritty team fails to make the playoffs, which is deservedly the minimum standard for acceptable performance in professional hockey and decidedly ought to be. Consider that aside from two memorably barren stretches in their storied near century-long annals you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times it's happened.

There was that eight year run (1960-67) known as "the Wilderness Years" when they awaited the Messianic deliverance of Bobby Orr, then the decade-long stretch, from 1997 to 2007 -- (not counting '05, the season nobody made the playoffs) -- when they missed five more times. Otherwise, they've answered the bell near every year. Nor does missing every decade or so in these times amount to any federal case, given the deeply entrenched and enforced parity creating little more than a dime's difference in at least half the teams. Bear in mind it's been 22 years since the reputedly divine Montreal Canadiens won anything.

Nowadays, you can miss the playoffs by the roll of the dice or a single bad bounce. For the Bruins this season the difference was two crummy points. Had they won even half of the shoot-outs in which they performed so pathetically they would have finished ahead of both Ottawa and Pittsburgh and would be now engaging, in Round One, Detroit; a team they might have beaten much as they did last year. Nowadays, there's little more than a dime's difference between being just an also-ran and winning the whole bloody thing, as last year's Cup-winners the LA Kings cleverly proved by also failing to make the playoffs.

Okay, so the "Nowadays" bear no resemblance to those halcyon days of the hallowed "Original Six," when among many other worthy circumstances there was no such thing as that abominable and idiotic "shoot-out." But we're all stuck in these ''Nowadays'' so you gotta deal with it. Which of course the Bruins, in their gritty obstinacy, prefer not to do. It's an old-fashioned hockey team. It's why we love them, of course. But it's become a flaw and more and more it's looking fatal.

In the critiques of the team and its failings this season already fast evolving, pundits are saying the Bruins lacked requisite ''spirit'' at key junctures. The general manager has seemed oddly puzzled in observing there were times when they simply seemed unable to summon ''the will'' to prevail. Some players themselves have vaguely noted the precious hard-nosed ''attitude'' for which the team's long been famed was unaccountably missing. Even the coach acts mystified.

Maybe it's just because they're too close to the trees to see the forest. But it's remarkable they don't recognize their team's personality and temperament have changed even if much of its makeup hasn't. It's a very different team than the one that almost won the Cup two years ago, let alone went all the way four years ago. These Bruins aren't those Bruins. They've changed because they had to change, were forced to change and if they hadn't changed their problems might now be even graver. It's odd the GM seems foggy on the subject because he's orchestrated this awkward transition. Peter Chiarelli had no choice. He may also have no taste for coming right out and saying so. Could be bad for business.

It's suddenly and profoundly a very different game in the NHL. It's been coming a long time, of course, but in this latest, possibly last stage of so-called ''reform'' there's been a quantum leap. Not only are the donnybrooks and nuttiness we once wrongly called "Hooliganism" near extinct but the mere ''roughing'' that honestly derives from intensity of play fades with it while minor retaliation and law-enforcing fisticuffs, both radically down this year and about to become even more heavily penalized, will surely follow. They've cleaned it up; no more "Slapshot." Many feel it's already improved the game. Being from the old-school I wouldn't exactly call it "Nirvana," but not wanting to seem a Neanderthal I'll just leave it at that.

Few teams -- maybe only the Philadelphia Flyers -- were doomed to be more profoundly affected by this metamorphosis in pro-hockey's vital atmospherics than the erstwhile "Big Bad Bruins." It's been a long time since they've been a team of rowdies but until very recently they were still a team to be feared.

But it's the byproduct of the crackdown on the so-called violence that haunts the Bruins, I think. Because it's also brought about a crackdown on all expressions of basic, hard-nosed and physical-play; the tight-checking, hard-hitting, gnawing, harassing, bitter stuff heavily spiced with gamesmanship and bravura that was so long the essence of the game. Formerly, most of it was not only perfectly admissible but never penalized. It was a fondness for all this that ran so deeply in the Bruins' DNA, making them one of the game's most colorful bands of brothers and best gate-attractions. It's the intimidation factor that's withered away in the NHL and the Bruins, long among the best of the intimidators, dearly miss it. Shawn Thornton was the last of their enforcers. Left much tamer and less snarling these new Bruins seem confused; not sure how to play and thereby more vulnerable. Exhibit "A" is Milan Lucic.

It's further interesting that while certainly tamer they nonetheless remain among the league's most heavily penalized teams while also getting the fewest penalty-calls in their favor. There are teams that had up to 100 more power-plays this season. How many goals and thereby how many points in the standings do you think that cost the Bruins? Enough to have put them in the playoffs, maybe? It's their history and finely crafted image that haunts them still. The zebras look at them and still see the long gone "Big, Bad Bruins." It's a sub-conscious thing, methinks.

Mind you there's also an abundance of relatively conventional factors laced in their sharp demise. It's a long list and there'll be time enough to get to it after emotions cool, reason is restored. Everyone save Patrice Bergeron, a stray Loui Ericksson, and the kids are on it.

In the meantime, crucial decisions are imminent on the general manager who has botched his payroll ruinously and the coach who seemingly lost his listless team as the late, lamented season was going down the drain. It should be of little comfort to you to consider that Jeremy Jacobs has placed his boisterous but very green and possibly clueless number three son in charge. Presumably this lad, who's never made a big hockey decision, will have much to say about those impending.

Yikes!

Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

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