March 14, 2012

Original Six: Bruins' top cult heroes

By Jesse Connolly

From perennial underdogs to blue-collared bruisers, Boston has long latched onto players that outsiders would never consider conventional stars. Whether they came and went in a flash or spent the entirety of their careers in Black and Gold, a number of NHL players who were never overly appreciated elsewhere have achieved cult-hero status in the Hub of Hockey. Here are the top players to earn that distinction in recent Bruins history:

6. Byron Dafoe

(1997-2002)

In the annals of Black and Gold netminding, Dafoe ranks among the all-time bests. He currently sits eighth in wins and third in goals-against average among goalies with 100 games played. If it weren’t for Dominik Hasek, he’d have won the Vezina Trophy in 1999. Yet because the Bruins flopped annually, the native of Sussex, England, doesn’t always get a fair shake.

As the self-professed president of his fan club (who once worshiped a poster of Dafoe and crafted an email address after him), I am notably biased. But I can say for certain that I wasn’t the only kid who got together with his friends for street hockey in the late ’90s and did his best to emulate “Lord Byron” between the pipes.

5. P.J. Axelsson

(1997-2009)

Axelsson all but wrote the book on being underappreciated. The lanky forward’s defensive prowess was something Bruins fans marveled at on a nightly basis, as time and time again Axelsson was in the right spot to intercept passes, block shots and thwart opposing power plays. While many outside Boston likely just shrugged when he returned to Sweden in 2009, those that bleed Black and Gold cursed the fact that Per Johan never got the recognition he deserved — namely with a Selke Trophy nomination.

In the latter stages of his career, Axelsson was miscast as a first-line winger, exposing his lack of finishing abilities in the offensive zone. But those that appreciated the skills he showed down the other end of the ice will always hold “Gumby” in high regard.

4. Shane Hnidy

(2008-09, 2011)

Hnidy’s willingness to drop the gloves at a moment’s notice was both obvious and admirable, but play-by-play man Jack Edwards all but deified the defenseman in November 2008, when the scrappy veteran got his hands on Stars rearguard Matt Niskanen during a full-fledged line brawl at the Garden. “Oh, Niskanen’s just getting his kisser rearranged by ‘Sheriff’ Shane Hnidy!” Edwards shouted. “Matty Niskanen’s not gonna be a pretty, little boy anymore!”

From there on out, fans fully appreciated what a stellar teammate Hnidy was, as the blueliner never missed a chance to stand up for a fellow Bruin. Given his role in the team’s resurgence, he fittingly earned a ring in 2011. No word on if he keeps it right next to his sheriff’s badge.

3. Shawn Thornton

(2007-present)

Prior to the 2007-08 season, the Bruins seemingly had a new designated fighter every year. From Andrei Nazarov to Doug Doull, the owner of the role was ever-changing until Thornton arrived. Since then, No. 22 has been the most generous Bruin when it comes to handing out thorough beatdowns, as he’s on pace to lead the team in penalty minutes for the third consecutive season.

But unbeknownst to many outside the Hub of Hockey, Thornton has proven capable of bringing much more to the table than the so-called goons he’s often lumped in with. A 10-goal scorer last season, an unquestioned leader in the dressing room and a borderline comedian in front of the camera, Thornton’s fists of fury, versatility and blue-collar approach are widely beloved in Boston.

2. Miroslav Satan

(2010)

Just how quickly did Bruins fans latch onto Satan? With the longtime Sabre taking Phil Kessel’s old No. 81, fans busted out the masking tape, covered Kessel’s name on the back of his briefly outdated jerseys and Sharpie’d the name of the devil himself in its place. After signing on as a free agent in January 2010, the then-35-year-old winger was a solid contributor down the stretch but really cemented his legendary status in the postseason.

Dubbed “Miro the Hero” after scoring two game-winners in the first round against Buffalo, it wasn’t long before “Hail Satan” shirts were everywhere. That was it for his NHL career, but Bruins fans will never forget his infamous, double-fist-pumping, celebratory goal dance from that series.

1. P.J. Stock

(2001-03)

In order to grab the No. 1 spot on this list, you’ve got to prove your legacy will live on. Stock certainly has. Despite the fact he sported the Spoked-B for only 130 games, you’ll still find plenty of Bruins’ fans decked out in gold “PJ Stock Crew” T-shirts, with the unmistakable “Ass Kicker 42” printed on the back — more than nine years since his tenure ended.

Stock endeared himself to fans by taking on — and often pummeling — fighters seemingly twice his size. Even on the Bruins’ worst nights, he was capable of singlehandedly getting everyone on their feet by following up a bout with his trademark wave to the crowd. I’d bet that any time someone imitates the move, Stock will be the first thing to pop in Bruins fans’ heads.


This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com