By Stu Hackel
While joy justifiably reigns in Boston, the Bruins and their fans are the only group that gets to celebrate. Like the notes of support that people are still leaving on Vancouver police cars, there are some important leftover thoughts to express in the aftermath of the B's seven-game Stanley Cup triumph, many about what we've learned about the state of the game this year and where things might go.
Some of that concerns hockey's fan culture, one we all celebrate for its loyalty and passion but one that also engenders such hostility that fans rioted in the aftermath of Game 7, making the championship a secondary story. It gave a wonderful city a huge emotional wound and tarred hockey in the process.
To the world at large, hockey fan violence was the culprit. A lot has been written and speculated about what occurred last Wednesday night in the streets of Vancouver. And what I've read and watched from afar indicates that while the instigators of this terrible event were not necessarily hockey fans, but organized criminals who would have rioted win or lose (as they apparently tried to do at the Vancouver Olympics, but were thwarted due to prior police knowledge-- they adjusted their tactics and such to avoid detection this time), fans certainly joined in, swept up in the mindless mob mentality of the moment.
But they don't get sucked into that vortex quite so easily if the passions around the game don't overflow out of control into such extreme blind rage and what was really mass insanity.
This isn't the first time that fans have rioted. It's happened all over the world in many sports. And when the tribal nature of hockey culture -- not just in Vancouver, but lots of NHL cities -- combines with long-standing frustrations, expectations of victory and the fact that fans get whipped into a frenzy and come to view a sports team's quest for a championship as something approaching a righteous holy war, well, that mixture can prove socially toxic.
The NHL can't control what happens away from the arenas, but it does have influence over what happens in them and the impressions that arise from its games. The rising tide of fan anger isn't something for leagues and teams to neglect. The L.A. Dodgers, for example, allowed the scene around their ballpark to degenerate over the years to the point where a few unprovoked thugs beat a fan of the rival Giants nearly to death in April, and that fan is still in a coma with extensive brain damage.
Anyone who has been at an NHL game when the home team is playing a rival or a big game knows that the level of malevolence toward the other team's fans can boil and even overflow into violence. One hopes that the NHL -- which is, after all, a gate receipts business -- is seriously studying this ongoing and very complex issue of fan violence and comes up with some ideas that its teams can implement. The level of vitriol among fans is increasing (in some cases, messaging from the media is helping to fuel it) and attending an NHL game shouldn't be a potentially dangerous undertaking.
As to what happened on the ice, the losing teams -- there are 29 of them -- always reflect on what the champion did to win the Stanley Cup and what each club has to do to win it. The NHL can be a copy-cat league and also-ran franchises rush to ape the winner's style of play to maximize their own chances.
So it was interesting to hear the thoughts of Canucks GM Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault on what went wrong against Boston and why, and then gauge the reaction in the Vancouver media. Both men noted that going through four rounds for the first time was very difficult and their leadership may have suffered because of it. Gillis especially came under criticism because he questioned the way games were officiated. They now know and should be better off if and when they return to the final (something the Bruins had over them since President Cam Neely had twice been the distance).
Vigneault rattled off the list of injured players he had, which was extensive, and noted that the Canucks were physical, but caught off guard by the Bruins' conduct after the whistles and the fact that the referees didn't call those situations the same way they did before the final.
That prompted a strong reaction from Cam Cole of The Vancouver Sun, who wrote, "As long as the officials are determined to stick their whistles up their, um, noses and never use them, it behooves a team to make the bullies pay when they lean all over the Sedins. Even at the cost of the penalty, Brad Marchand has to leave with a bloody nose and an absence of front teeth when he's speed-bagging Daniel Sedin's head in a scrum while the referees pretend not to notice. Neanderthal thinking? Yup. But that's the way the game is called, the closer it gets to awarding the Cup."
That sentiment followed closely the line drawn by Ed Willis of The Vancouver Province, who condemned what he saw of the Canucks' actions -- the biting, the diving, the complaining about the officiating -- as a lack of maturity and physical and mental toughness, and opined, "Beginning about Game 3, the Canucks became the team the hockey world loved to hate and while a lot of that sentiment originated in Boston, it was echoed throughout North America." (In fact, Nashville's Coach Barry Trotz complained in the second round about the Canucks' "gamesmanship", but who's keeping track?).
Willis endorsed another view from Canada, that of The Edmonton Sun's Terry Jones who, as part of a long list of reasons why Canada rejected the Canucks, suggested they "change the mix to add toughness and get rid of the soccer-style divers, finger-biters and whiners."
Gillis, at his season-ending press conference, seemed to reject that course of action, saying, "We designed our team around the current rule book, the current method of playing the game. We were the best team in the league this year. I am not going to plan a team around competing with one specific team in this league. We specifically went about asking certain of our players not to do things after the whistle, to do things differently -- and we got the results. You can't argue with the results. At some point, if you keep knocking on the door, you're going to break through, you're going to face a different set of circumstances, and that's what I'm going to do."
I found it funny that those other voices were calling for more toughness (especially from a team that already has Raffi Torres, a fairly capable if not frequent pugilist). That's the same thing that was heard coming out of Montreal this season after the Bruins eliminated the Canadiens (and even before). It made me wonder if this will be the NHL's takeaway from the Bruins' victory, that the rest of the league will now be encouraged to get into an arms race to combat Boston, much the same way teams began to goon it up in the mid-70s after the Flyers became champions.
I'm not too sure that's what will happen, regardless of what is urged. For one thing, the calls for a new arms race weren't the same messages we heard coming out of Philadelphia and Tampa Bay after the Bruins beat those teams this spring. True, the Flyers already have lots of toughness, maybe more than Boston, but it didn't help them at all. Their deficiency was in goal (which is why their roster may experience some upheaval if they make good on their attempt to sign Ilya Bryzgalov), but the Philly-Boston series wasn't the rock 'em, sock 'em affair some expected. The punitive character of the series wasn't even about mutual deterrence as much as it was about stickwork and you don't have to be a tough guy for that.
Nor was the Lightning's shortcoming against the Bruins because they weren't tough enough. They're not a soft team, but they aren't the physical club the Bruins are. Still, they fell only one goal short in a seven-game series. In fact, the same can be said for the Canadiens, who took Boston to three overtime games, dropping each one. While some may call for more toughness in Montreal, they really could use more reliable scoring.
In truth, the quality Boston displayed that made the difference -- in addition to the world's best goaltending -- was resiliency, an ability to bounce back. Against Montreal, it was staying confident after losing the first two games at home. The defining theme of Flyers series was the Bruins summoning confidence to emphatically exorcise the demons from their collapse a season earlier. Beating the Lighting required perseverance to finally break down Tampa Bay's various systems. And again in the Cup final, they had to overcome a 2-0 deficit.
When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, there were lots of calls for teams to bulk up to challenge Anaheim, the league's most penalized team. But the following year, the Red Wings, the league's least penalized club, won the Cup, and the year after that, it was the Penguins, who were not overly physical, either.
Being physically tough certainly helped, but where the Bruins had it all over their opponents this spring was their mental toughness. That's how they survived.