June 7, 2011

From NEHJ: Bruins reclaim Hub of Hockey

By Jesse Connolly

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. 

For loyal fans of the Boston Bruins, convincing those around them to give hockey the time of day has

The Bruins celebrate their Eastern Conference championship -- and a Stanley Cup Finals matchup against Vancouver-- after their thrilling, 1-0 victory over the Lightning in Game 7 last month. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Bruins celebrate their Eastern Conference championship -- and a Stanley Cup Finals matchup against Vancouver-- after their thrilling, 1-0 victory over the Lightning in Game 7 last month. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

been a lifelong battle. Oftentimes, unfortunately, it has been a losing one.

While the Black and Gold haven’t been completely mired in misery since the glory days of the Big, Bad Bruins, the amount of hockey-induced heartache doled out every spring since the team last captured the Stanley Cup in 1972 has kept an Original Six franchise in the shadows of its Boston sports brethren for the better part of four decades.

Those of us not lucky enough to have inhabited the old Garden to witness such greats as Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk sport the Spoked-B are often reminded that Boston was once a hockey town, one in which every member of the Bruins — whether a star or a spare part — was treated like a god.

But somewhere along the way — especially in the past decade — that all changed. The Red Sox surged back to the forefront and famously ended their infamous 86-year curse. The Patriots rode the dynamic duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to three Super Bowl titles plus a season of near perfection. The Celtics put an end to their own misfortune by re-creating the “Big Three” with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to raise their historic 17th championship banner in 2008 — their first in more than 20 years.

The Bruins? They were busy trying to figure out how to shift out of neutral, a gear they’d been stuck in since Cam Neely hung up his skates in the mid-’90s and, more recently, Ray Bourque was sent packing for the Rocky Mountains.

If winning cures everything, it’s no wonder hockey has been such a tough sell, as the Bruins have left their fans’ hopes of glory mortally wounded season after season.

From 2000 to 2008, the Bruins failed to win a single playoff series. They traded away three of their captains in Bourque, Jason Allison and Joe Thornton, all while waving goodbye to one talented player after another — only to replace them with pluggers or aged veterans who were eons past their primes throughout most of the decade.

With continuity non-existent and a Stanley Cup looking completely out of reach, a franchise that once qualified for the playoffs for a record 29 consecutive seasons was in utter disarray. General manager Peter Chiarelli, and subsequently Claude Julien — hired as head coach after the disastrous, Dave Lewis-led, 2006-07 campaign — were largely responsible for a dramatic turnaround.

Like a wide-eyed kid staring at an elaborate, 500-piece puzzle, Chiarelli has spent the past few years figuring out where all of the pieces fit in order for the Bruins to be successful in the playoffs. The GM thought he had it solved in 2009 when the Black and Gold finished as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, only to be let down when they bowed out in the second round. After a trying regular season the following year, the Bruins seemed poised to get over the hump and into the conference finals, only to blow a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers.

And it was the reaction from the fans that was so fitting, such a testament to how low the expectations had sunk for the Black and Gold. This was your typical Bruins, lifting your hopes for an instant only to rip your heart out.

After falling behind 0-2 in their opening-round series against the Canadiens this spring, it was here-we-go-again time in Boston. The Bruins, runaway winners of the Northeast Division, were going to blow it yet again.

But, as New England and the rest of the world soon found out, this wasn’t your Bruins of recent years. This was a club with more talent and more resilience than any team in the Hub of Hockey had possessed in nearly two decades. This was a team that believed in one another and simply refused to lose.

After being seemingly bound for another early exit from the playoffs, the Bruins found themselves as one of the two teams left standing just six weeks later, exorcizing many a playoff demon along the way. After vanquishing the Habs and climbing out of an 0-2 hole for the first in franchise history, the Bruins avenged last year’s meltdown by sweeping the Flyers in Round 2.

Leading up to their decisive seventh game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, their first trip to that stage since 1992, the Bruins themselves took notice of their burgeoning popularity around town.

“I walked over today and saw everybody with their Bruins stuff on and got about 20 high-fives,” Andrew Ference said of his trip to the morning skate before Game 7. “So people are pumped up. Of course, they should be. Everybody has seen so much success in this city with different sports and they want the Bruins to have success as well.”

Still, negative thoughts prevailed for many, as those who’d grown accustomed to being let down by the Black and Gold hoped for the best but expected the worst that night. What they got was the biggest victory their hometown team has earned in more than 20 years and the highest decibel level TD Garden has reached in its 15-plus years of existence, as the Bruins beat the Bolts 1-0 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Heading into their series against the champions of the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks, the Bruins were elated to have finally reached such great heights and provided their fans with a playoff ride they’ll likely never forget. However, their mission wasn’t quite done yet.

“It’s kind of our turn to return the favor to all the fans and show how good of a team we can be,” winger Brad Marchand said. “We want to go all the way for them. They’ve been waiting a long time for a Cup, so hopefully we can win it.”

For Julien, restoring the region’s once-wavering faith in its hockey club always has been a major part of his mission as the Bruins bench boss, especially with all of the other major sports teams in Boston having such great success.

“Well, I think that’s been the goal from Day One,” Julien said. “We’ve always wanted to bring that excitement back to this city. And to be at the stage we are right now, it’s great.”

Win or lose against the Canucks, the Bruins have proven a ton to those that have stuck with them through thick and thin, as well as the locals who might have turned their backs on the Black and Gold over the past 39 years — the same individuals who likely played a key role in the team completely selling out season tickets for next season.

This is a squad that has been constructed to win both now and in the future, with a tremendous foundation of youth, skill, big-game performers and natural-born leaders to build upon. This is a group of men, both young and old, that has proven that no amount of adversity can deter them from trying to reach their ultimate goal.

But most important of all, this is now an organization that’s united from top to bottom, striving together to reward its passionate fans with a championship and proving they have everything and everyone in place to do so.

With that, they have deservingly received all of New England’s attention throughout their magical playoff run. They have accomplished what many thought no Bruins team might ever do. At long last, they have made Boston a hockey town once again.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com