There was a time in this town when hockey coverage on sports talk radio was reduced to a one minute interval on the midday show. The Boston Bruins were the ugly duckling of the city’s professional sports scene, playing a sport nobody watched, games that nobody really cared about. Hockey itself was floundering, the failure of a decade’s long stewardship under commissioner Gary Bettman. The game was now monotone, mundane, and just plain bad. And the Bruins, who lacked talent following trades and retirements of city icons like Cam Neely and Ray Bourque, suffered along with them.
The Black and Gold bottomed out following a trade of Joe Thornton, and they were left with the ruins of a once proud franchise. As the first season after the NHL Lockout came to a close, the B’s were left with only a die-hard fan base and nothing more than mid-section news in the city media outlets. They were, in essence, a nothing when measured against the Boston Celtics, and they were less than that when measured against their championship counterparts in the Red Sox and New England Patriots.
But in 2007-2008, something happened for the Bruins. They played one series in the first round of the playoffs against Montreal that recaptured people’s passion in the team. Game 6 of the 2008 playoffs series with the Canadiens was one of the best games in years for the B’s, who built on that to recapture the interest of the region during the next year when they were the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Still, they failed to advance past the second round, and still, they lacked widespread interest over the resurgent Celtics, who were in the process of winning championships of their own.
For Boston, their true depth of failure came in 2010, when they built on the success of a resurgent American interest in hockey following the Vancouver Olympics. They eliminated American hero Ryan Miller and took a three games to none lead over Philadelphia. The playoffs series were lining up so Boston would have an inevitable showdown with either Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh or the hated Canadiens. Hockey was ready for a comeback.
And then The Choke happened, and the Bruins were eliminated. Still, they managed to regain a level of popularity in the city, and as they readied for this past season, it felt like something, just something, was going to happen.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2011 Boston Bruins.
Winning a championship is always the best way to gain or recapture a fan base’s attention. But the way the Bruins did it in 2011 enabled them to surpass a sinking Celtics team and reclaim Boston as a “hockey town.” The players on the team were amiable, neighborhood-style guys that fans could recall stories of seeing on the street and talking to. Their attitude reflected the city, especially its blue-collar nature, and their never-say-die, never-back-down style of play enamored them to the fans. Every game, the Bruins punched their clock, went out and did their job, just as every person in Boston did.
For the first time in 39 years, the Bruins were champions, and it was a renaissance for the entire sport in the region. Ratings soared to over a 40 share in the city, giving the NHL its best ratings in years. The series themselves became city against city, identity against identity, and every series was punishing on the emotion.
There was the first round series against Montreal, with the lingering odor of Zdeno Chara‘s check on Max Pacioretty filtering through nearly a century’s worth of residual hatred. There was the second round series with Philadelphia, where Boston stood to exorcise the demons of the 2010 postseason collapse. The Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay was a battle between two talented teams, with a different hero every night for both rosters and a respectable, amazing battle between goalies Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson. And the Stanley Cup Final itself managed to turn itself into a bloodbath slugfest with incidents in every game and instigators on both sides, with players on both rosters becoming hated, household-named villains in the corresponding city.
It was almost as if the 2011 Boston Bruins took a page out of the 2004 Boston Red Sox’ book. The Sox in ’04 needed to go through the Yankees in the way that they did in order for the playoffs to play out with that level of emotion. An already-emotional state was brought to another level every single night by new heroes, who etched themselves into history. The 2004 Boston Red Sox were always going to be special if they won the World Series, but to do it by coming back on the Yankees, with everybody on the team playing a role – that’s something that dreams and movies are made of. For the 2011 Bruins, the postseason was exactly like that, with Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, and, of course, Thomas becoming household heroes with their flair for the dramatic. Enemies like Robert Luongo, Alexandre Burrows, and, before them, PK Subban played the role of Alex Rodriguez as they committed treason against “our” guys. It seemed like opponents every series managed to make this past season an “us against them” mentality, one that allotted the release of releases when the final buzzer sounded in Game 7.
When the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run finally ended, and the Cup was hoisted into the Vancouver arena’s air, it felt like a culmination of a war, one in which our nation stood triumphantly victorious. It represented so much more than just a hockey game; it tested the resilience and resolve of the players, and it tested who they were as men. For Bostonians, something like that is something we want to relate to, as a people. Boston is a city built on blue-collar work. To see these guys stand up for one another and literally fight, claw, and, at times, bite their way to victory – well that just represented the neighborhoods of Southie and the Dot, represented crews of Townies and groups of friends from Revere. It was felt all the way up the North Shore, down to the Cape, and out into Metrowest. And it became part of us.
In the offseason, the players endeared themselves even more to Boston by being slightly…well…rambunctious with the Cup. Tales of bar bills and nude urination at Foxwoods made the average Bostonian, who punches out on Friday and heads to the bar for a cold one, smile and laugh because we all have a friend who does something that insane. There’s barely a person left in New England that didn’t get their moment with the Cup, a campaign brought on by the Bruins who realized what the championship meant to the citizens of the region. And the summer did nothing to diminish the good feelings we felt, even to the point where the Red Sox were essentially overshadowed in their own right.
As the 2011-2012 season began, the banner was raised, and the region rejoiced. The Bruins managed to overcome a figurative (and possibly literal) hangover to the start of the season to close out 2011 as the best team in the NHL. That’s almost a storybook nobody could write, a dream nobody who watched the team four years ago could dream of. Being a Bruins fan these days is the best place to be, even better than any of those other three teams, and the media is tuned into what’s happening on the ice on Causeway Street. Everyone wants in on Bruins fever, and the market isn’t quite saturated. Maybe this time next year, the article is about the influx of “pink skates” infiltrating and ruining what we love about hockey (like they did with baseball), but for now, it’s about rejoicing.
The Big, Bad Bruins, echoes of the guys who won the Stanley Cup when my dad was my age in the 1970s, are back. The faces are different, the names are different, but the character is still the same. 2011 was the Year of the Bruin, and 2012 is shaping up to hopefully be the same. And, for legions of dormant hockey fans, whose passion was reduced to high school state tournaments and college Beanpots and national titles, we’ve finally conquered the top level as one. The Black and Gold are back. Boston is, once again, a hockey town.