The quiet is more refreshing than eerie.
In the typical buildup to a "grudge" game, or a game between teams whose previous match was especially nasty, threats are implied, the heat is dialed up, and the anticipation in two cities builds for something rollicking and even untoward.
As the Montreal Canadiens lurched into Boston on Thursday for what in less contemplative times might by called
Now, maybe the sight of Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty being wheeled off on a stretcher was enough to knock the hot air out of anyone who happened to be in the Bell Centre on March 8 and witnessed a genuinely harrowing sight. Or maybe Bruins rookie Brad Marchand, coming off a recent two-game suspension for elbowing R.J. Umberger of the Blue Jackets in the head, had little left in his lexicon after labeling Montreal players as divers on the morning of the last game between hockey's Hatfields and McCoys.
In any case, the NHL landscape has shifted in the weeks since the last Bruins-Canadiens game.
The truly fascinating part of the equation is that
There seems to be something profound at work here, something that strikes me as counterintuitive given the uproarious success of UFC. At a time when a newly popular sport that looks like a human video game is capturing unprecedented attention and dollars precisely because of its unapologetic violence, there is every indication that fans of hockey, the knock-knock joke of major sports to the uninformed, actually might want less violence.
Although the NHL has tiptoed down this path in the past year with Rule 48 and its ongoing concussion study, the league seems to have been a stride behind the play -- if you believe the public outcry. A poll of more than 1,000 Canadians taken in mid-March revealed that 66 percent of respondents said the league was not doing enough to curb violence.
Canadians, to borrow a phrase from Bettman, do "get it." They are not a queasy people. Maybe the fresh memories of Pacioretty's head whipsawing or Sidney Crosby's concussion problem have skewed their view, but it seemed like stomachs, if not corners, have been turned in the debate over the acceptable level of violence.
Air Canada, a corporate sponsor, spoke out, eliciting a shrill response from Bettman, who intimated that the league could take its charter business elsewhere. So did Via Rail, another Montreal-based company that invests in the league. (If Kia, which presented Phil Kessel with those nice wheels for hanging around so long at the All-Star Game draft, also decides to chide the league, you would have planes, trains and automobiles.) Some politicians in Canada also chimed in on the issue, making the notion of "finishing your check" as much as a motherhood issue as finishing your vegetables.
Not everyone was on board, of course. On the morning of a Montreal protest rally called because Chara escaped suspension, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said that if fans didn't like the game as is, they shouldn't come. This was not Cubs manager Lee Elia profanely blasting Wrigley Field fans for booing, but it certainly was not a high point of Boudreau's meandering career.
So in the shifting sands of the modern NHL, Montreal and Boston meet for the sixth time this season and 711th in history, which is not counting another 163 games in 32 playoff series. The fervor has been ramping exponentially since Montreal's overtime win in early January was marked by Pacioretty's sophomoric shove of Chara after scoring the winner. That was followed by the
Maybe Boston and Montreal, in a third place/sixth place struggle in the Eastern Conference, can summon some of the meanness that has marked their recent games, but the suspicion is that Pacioretty's near miss -- his neck fracture was non-displaced -- even more than the looming presence of NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson in the TD Garden on Thursday might have ruined the appetites for raw meat.
"We're not going to go in there and try to do something stupid," Habs fourth-liner Ryan White told Montreal reporters after practice Wednesday. "Any payback is going to come in beating them."
Has the gong really sounded on this Gong Show?