BOSTON — The only things making their way down Route 2 this afternoon are a few cars and heavy slants of evening light. The sun glints off Boston in the distance. The skyline has grown denser and taller as new high-rises sprout up. A couple of miles later, I speed past the cookie-cutter apartment buildings that have just replaced the old bowling alley, Lanes and Games. The highway leading in and out of the suburbs is usually bumper-to-bumper on a Monday, but today is Memorial Day, so the city has flat-lined.
Things start to stir closer to Government Center, where thousands of fans in Bruins jerseys are making their way down Canal Street. The road has been closed off for an outdoor party before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Tonight, TD Garden is this town’s beating heart.
Fans stream into the arena through its shiny new entrance. You used to have to go in through side doors, but the building’s corporate owners just redid the entire front-facing section of the arena. It’s so fresh that some of the shops inside haven’t opened yet.
But the nearby bars are bumping. Three guys in St. Louis sweaters stand out amid the sea of black and yellow. I ask them how they’ve been treated.
“Pretty good,” says Tim Proctor, who flew in with his buddies John Gills and Greg Jansen from Missouri for the game.
“Well, except for the water balloons,” Jansen says.
“Oh yeah, except for those,” Proctor says, nodding. “Yesterday, we were walking over from Charlestown. When we got to the North End, near the statue of Paul Revere, all of a sudden we got literally pelted with water balloons. They hit the wall and splashed all over us. We looked up and saw a few little kids in a window, about 12 years old, in Bruins jerseys. And I just had a Blues hat on! No jersey, nothing crazy, just a Blues hat!"
“But that’s sports,” Gills says. “It was just water. Glad it wasn’t December or it would’ve been frozen.”
Two other Blues fans walk by. Leslie Fogerty and Lacy Marshall drove to Boston without tickets for the game. They’re hoping to find a way in with their friend Susie, an older woman who’s from here. She’s decked out in Bruins gear and doesn’t want to give her last name. So far, Fogerty and Marshall say Boston fans have been pretty nice.
“They’ve been saying things like, ‘Good luck, but we don’t really mean it,’” Fogerty says. “I mean, they kind of have a dynasty here. And it sucks.”
“They hate us,” Susie says, in a thick Boston accent. “They hate Tom [Brady]. I keep telling them that it’s been less than a year since we had a parade and we need another one.”
Fogerty rolls her eyes. “It’s been 49 for us.”
Country star Chase Rice is singing about Jack Daniels at the Game 1 watch party in City Hall Plaza. People chant, “We want the Cup!” as they pack themselves into the red brick moat that surrounds City Hall. The building is one of the most famous examples of Brutalist architecture in the country, and the cement block has been hated by basically everyone (except for architectural historians) since it was constructed. It was the product of Government Center’s attempt at urban redesign in the 1960s.
The crowd is waiting for Lil Nas X, the artist who will, in a few moments, perform his one hit song, “Old Town Road.” But first, a few cops have to break up a fight between a Bruins fan and a man wearing St. Louis colors.
Once things settle down, Cam Schmidt and Chris Brown, two 20 year olds in Bruins gear, fill in the space that cleared out when the two men started swinging. Schmidt and Brown are both from nearby Boston suburbs. They don’t remember a time when Boston sports sucked—all Schmidt can offer up is that the Bruins weren’t great in the early 2000s.
“But we’ve always had the Pats,” Brown says. As he speaks, one of his friends bounds over and jumps up on Brown’s shoulders. Brown tells him to chill out. The friend immediately apologizes and explains that he just chugged a water bottle full of vodka on his way over here (“That’s Boston for you,” Schmidt says, rolling his eyes).
“For the last decade and this decade, Boston sports teams continue to keep winning,” Brown says. “And at some point, you think that it’s overkill. But it doesn’t feel like that yet. It just feels like we need to keep winning.”
“It’s like if you don’t get a championship, it’s an unsuccessful season,” Schmidt says. “It’s a tough sports town.”
On Tuesday night, between Games 1 and 2, The Sevens Ale House on Beacon Hill is pretty quiet. It’s one of the few true dives left in this part of the city. The palce a few blocks down used to be grimier, but new owners recently scraped a few layers of filth off the floor, got rid of the pop-a-shot, and cleared decades of tchotchkes from behind the bar. Now it looks more like someone’s idea of a dive bar than the actual thing.
But the Sevens is still going strong, with its red carpet, ancient darts board, and scratched up wooden booths. It’s often filled with young professionals, sure, but there’s still a large group of working-class folks who are regulars. Tonight, several men who work at the bicycle shop nearby are watching the Sox game. Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” plays out of the jukebox.
I hear the name Danny Ainge—the Celtics’ general manager—float up from their table toward the dark wooden beams. The Celtics are the only Boston team of the major four that didn’t win the chance to fight for a championship this year. I ask one of the guys, whose name is Mike, if he thinks the Bruins can pull off the city’s third win in a year.
“I don’t know,” he says. “But I do think there’s a very good chance that in a few weeks we’ll have one of these in our city.”
He picks up a glass of water sitting next to the Guinness in front of him. It takes me a second to realize what he’s getting at.
“Oh,” I say, “You mean the Cup?”
“You said it, I didn’t,” Mike says. He knocks on the wooden table three times, then on his own head.
“You’re pretty superstitious, huh?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’ve been through too much losing in this town to take it for granted. I mean…” he trails off, then crosses himself and points to the sky. “RIP Billy Buckner.”
Bill Buckner—Billy Bucknah—famously let a ball roll through his legs during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets. He wasn't the reason the Sox lost that championship, but his error has become a legend. He passed away on Monday at the age of 69.
“Winning comes and goes,” Mike says, “This won’t last forever.”
Everyone who rides the elevator near section 18 during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night asks John why he’s here.
“Hey Johnny, you cheating on the Sox?” one guy asks, giving him a playful punch in the arm.
John laughs. He’s tall and slightly stooped, with a shock of white hair and a white beard. Bruins season ticket holders aren’t used to seeing him here in the spring because he usually mans the lifts at Fenway. He prefers the ballpark. He only works Bruins and Celtics games in the winter, but tonight he chose hockey over baseball because “it’s the final.” I ask if he ever thought he’d have to make that choice when he was growing up in Boston. He laughs and shakes his head.
“Now my grandson gets bummed if the Sox are knocked out in September,” he says. “When I was a kid, they got knocked out by Patriots Day.”
There are nine minutes and 42 seconds left in the second period of Game 2, and TD Garden is as loud as an aircraft carrier operating at full swing. You can say a lot of things about Boston sports fans, but you can’t say they’re complacent. The score is 2–2, and it’s electric—by the sound of it, you’d think this town hadn’t won a championship in decades.
But it has. As recently as February, when the Patriots beat the Rams to win the Super Bowl, and before that in October, when the Sox beat the Dodgers to win the World Series. When the Jumbotron shows Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the crowd goes nuts. Belichick takes his hat off and waves, then the camera switches to Patriots owner Robert Kraft. He stands up and whoops. People somehow get louder.
“We want the Cup!” rips around the stadium as the puck rips around the ice. In McGann’s Irish Pub on Portland Street before the game, fans watched the Sox game and broke out into the same ubiquitous chant between sips of Sam Adams. Boston is buzzing.
The Bruins, the Patriots, the Sox, the Celtics: They’re the blood that courses through this city’s veins. Being a Boston fan now is like being a trust-fund kid. You’re born into a legacy that, when it comes to sports, isn’t supposed to be possible. And the rest of the country hates it. No one likes to watch other people slide down piles of gold.
But fans like Mike, John and Susie—and everyone over, say, 23—know it wasn’t always this way. Boston has changed, sprouting shiny new structures and shiny new trophies. There was some miserable romance to the gritty buildings and in having to say, “there’s always next year.” Those who remember losing—unlike the kids at the concert and the ones throwing water balloons—hold onto victories like they’re on borrowed time.
Game 2 ends in overtime with a St. Louis goal. The Blues win 3–2, so the series will return to Boston for a Game 5. If the Bruins bring the Cup home, the city will be blessed with its third championship parade in nine months. If the team doesn’t, this town will still have come absurdly close. And years ago, the thought alone would’ve been a sleek glass tower in the sky.