FOUR DECADES AFTER THE BLUE-COLLAR BRUINS STITCHED THEMSELVES INTO THE FABRIC OF BOSTON, A NEW GENERATION OF PLAYERS IS CHASING THE STANLEY CUP, AND FINDING OUT WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO BE THE HOME TEAM
This is an article from the June 6, 2011 issue
The standing ovation was a return to the past. No, not the standing ovation at TD Garden last Friday night, the 10-minute communal fret-celebration at the end of that 1--0, stomach-churning win over the Lightning in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals that sent the Bruins into their best-of-seven transcontinental arm wrestle with the Canucks for the Stanley Cup. No, that was frenzied normality, a universal sports staple, excited people in an exciting moment.
The standing ovation the next afternoon at Pizzeria Regina in the North End was different. That was the way life once was in Boston hockey.
"Milan Lucic came in...." Richie Zapata, manager of the restaurant, reported.
Yes, Milan Lucic. Bruins winger. Still only 22 years old. Fourth year with the team. Six-feet-three, 228 pounds. A fan favorite since he arrived as a 19-year-old, straight from the Vancouver Giants, his junior team. Banger, scrapper, thumper. Yes.
"Johnny Boychuk was with him...."
Yes. Johnny Boychuk. Defenseman. Twenty-seven. Six-feet-two, 225 pounds. Third year with the Bruins. Big-time slap shot from the point. Cannon.
"They were with their girlfriends.... "
"I gave them a booth in the back. They ordered a large pepperoni with peppers and mushrooms. I gave them some extra slices. Took care of it. They were nice. Signed some metal pizza plates for the waitresses. Just nice. Nobody bothered them."
So when the two Bruins and their girlfriends finished their meal at the original Pizzeria Regina—not one of the other Pizzeria Regina locations around the area, the original, with the familiar red-and-white-checked tablecloths, with the smart-mouth waitresses, with the waiting line that goes out the door most of the time and down the stairs straight onto Thacher Street, when they stood up, well, everyone else in the restaurant also stood up. And started clapping. Just like that.
A standing ovation for finishing lunch.
"It was something to see," Richie Zapata said. "Jay Leno ate here. Leonardo DiCaprio. Rene Russo. Never happened with any of them."
It happened here.
It happened now.
It happened with a couple of the Bruins. Just the way things like that used to happen all the time.
These guys are going to see what it's like," said Derek (Turk) Sanderson, long-ago Bruin, part of the last two Stanley Cup champions, in 1970 and '72, the teams that stitched and stamped the Bruins into the fabric of Boston life. "Good for them. They're going to get a taste of how good it can be around here."
A forgotten strand of DNA has kicked back to life. Memories have been stirred. The game and the team that captivated a previous generation—jesus saves, espo scores on the rebound, the bumper stickers read—are captivating the newest generation. Urban renewal has come to what locals consider the foremost hockeytown in the United States. The Bruins are good again, shooting for a moon that for so long had seemed out of reach.
After 21 years they are in a Stanley Cup final. If they can beat the Canucks, they will win their first NHL title in 39 years.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls in the past decade. The Red Sox finally won two World Series in that time, ending an 86-year curse and sending people celebrating into the streets. The Celtics won a 17th world championship. Six championships in 10 years. Six duck boat rides down the city streets. The Bruins won nothing. They stumbled and fell, stumbled and fell again. They fell hard, fell easy, always fell again.
"Where do you start with the disappointments?" Heather Steadman, a veterinary technician from Gloucester, Mass., a season-ticket holder for 36 years, asked. "I go all the way back to when we got Brad Park to play with Bobby Orr and we were going to win Cup after Cup, and Orr got hurt and it never happened. Too many men on the ice in 1979. Edmonton, the fog on the ice, the three-overtime game in 1990. I remember living and dying with Cam Neely, my favorite player of all time. They had Neely, Ray Bourque and Adam Oates. If all three were healthy at the same time, they never lost. Except they weren't all healthy at the same time much at all."
A substantial bump was hit as recently as a year ago, the collapse in seven games against the Flyers in the conference semifinals. Had a 3--0 lead in games. Lost it. Had a 3--0 lead in the seventh game. Lost it. Lost the series. Two years ago, another bump, semifinals, seventh game, overtime, Scott Walker goal with 1:14 left. Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2. Three years ago ... first round, seventh game. Canadiens 5, Bruins 0. Four years ago, five.... Arrrgh.
Coaches came and went, one after another, gruff coaches, happy coaches, all styles of coaches, walking the plank to unemployment. Players shuffled through the roster. Dark moments abounded.
"In 1996, I made my debut as a color commentator doing the games on radio with WBZ," Andy Brickley, former Bruins forward, now the color man on television, said. "They had the worst record in the league. That was tough. The worst record in the league. It was awful. It was embarrassing. You had to learn to be creative in a hurry."
Would the Bruins ever be the Bruins again?
A standard of success had been laid out by the Orr teams in 1970 and '72. Their unmatched, giddy romp to those two Cups captivated the region. The picture of the flying Orr, tripped after he scored the winning goal against the Blues in 1970 by defenseman Noel Picard, became a staple of New England barrooms and kitchens, hung next to portraits of John F. Kennedy, the Pope and maybe Carl Yastrzemski. The game, hockey, sank its roots deeper and flourished.
The Bruins were kings. Hockey was king.
"I was eight years old, 10 years old, when they won those two Cups," Brickley, who grew up in suburban Melrose, said. "Everyone played hockey. Everyone wanted to be Sanderson, Orr, Johnny Bucyk, Kenny Hodge. If you couldn't skate, that was O.K., because you could play street hockey. I grew up in a family with seven kids, five of them boys. There was a park across the street. Someone started a rumor that my older brother maybe went into the park and cut down the tennis net so we could have room to play street hockey. Maybe he took that net and made goalie nets out of them. Maybe that happened."
The excitement generated by the Bruins was irresistible. Of course kids fell in love. Bob Wilson boomed out baritone descriptions on the radio. Channel 38 brought the games into the living room. The Boston Garden, the old Garden, the home of those teams, was cramped and loud. The patrons hung over the ice from the third deck, the Gallery Gods, the cheap seats. The comments were constant.
"The people who followed us were working guys," Sanderson, a center, said. "They liked us because we were working guys. Policemen and firemen always liked us. Hockey isn't like, say, baseball. Baseball is a game of stats. If Kevin Youkilis goes 4 for 5, makes a couple of plays in the field, he can have a good day and it doesn't matter if the Red Sox win or lose. He still had a good day. Hockey isn't like that. Hockey is a game of character. In hockey everybody has to have a good day at the same time. If one guy isn't doing what he is supposed to do, the whole thing falls apart.
"Boston fans knew this. They'd give you about eight to 11 minutes to get going in the first period. If they sensed no effort, no bounce, you'd start to hear the comments, 'You wanna wake up, you clowns? You want to wake up?' That would get you going. It better get you going."
The atmosphere seemed to come from an old movie. Maybe a prison film. An opera singer named Rene Rancourt was invited for the first time to sing the national anthem in 1976. He didn't know anything about hockey. ("Never paid attention.") He never had heard of the Bruins. ("Who are they?") He didn't know how to get to the Garden. ("Where is it?") When he got there, saw what was happening, he was amazed.
"There were all these people pounding on that plexiglass, all this noise," he said. "The smoke was everywhere from all of the cigarettes. You smelled beer everywhere. I said, 'These are my people.' I loved that place. I even loved the rats in that building. Those big river rats. You'd see 'em on the way out the back door late at night."
An image of the Bruins hockey player emerged. He wore an open blue collar. He was not afraid to dirty his hands. The Lunch Pail A.C. That was the nickname. Punch in, punch out. An honest effort. The off-ice exploits made news, wacky stuff like when Orr and some teammates kidnapped center Phil Esposito from Mass General after knee surgery, wheeling him out to go to a team party, but the on-ice exploits were solid and successful. The city loved the Bruins. The Bruins loved the city. Even after the birth of the competing World Hockey Association and the expansion of the NHL took talent off the roster, the Bruins were the bottom-line Boston team. They were family, not just sports entertainment. Family and friends.
The players on the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, as the money grew larger and larger, became wealthy visitors. They played their seasons, made their money, took it somewhere else, preferably warm, when seasons and then careers were finished. The Bruins routinely stayed. They bought houses. They raised kids. They shoveled the driveway and said hello. Family. Family and friends.
"You'd get everything for free," Sanderson said, describing the Stanley Cup days. "You'd go to a restaurant, eat for free. Go somewhere else, drink for free. Free clothes. You'd get gas. No problem. I never had a date the whole time I played in Boston. Not a date where you went to the girl's house, picked her up. You just went to the bar. Come around midnight, you picked out who you wanted."
There was nothing as good as being a Bruin in Boston in those days. Nothing in sports. Nothing maybe in anything.
So now the best times, at least an updated version of the best times, have arrived again. The local newspapers are filled with stories about the old Bruins, about Sanderson and Orr and their faded glories. Former winger Johnny (Pie) McKenzie remembers when he poured a pitcher of beer over mayor Kevin White's head during the city hall celebration in 1970. He also remembers when Kevin White poured a pitcher of beer over his head in '72.
Comparisons will be made in the coming week between this team and the old Bruins—Tim Thomas compared with Gerry Cheevers in goal, perhaps Patrice Bergeron compared with Sanderson, nobody compared with the celestial Orr, although Zdeno Chara is a fine defenseman. Styles will be compared. The game of hockey today with its space-age boots, composite sticks and mandated helmets will be compared with the hockey of just plain skates, just plain wood and just plain bare heads.
The old Garden, gone since '95, will be compared with its sterile replacement. Everything will be compared. The price of tickets will be compared. The crowds will be compared.
"I think I'll go, but you look at those ticket prices," Sanderson said. "I remember when a ticket was $4.50. I guess it's still $450. They just got rid of that decimal point."
"My two tickets are next to the glass, and they're $522 apiece," Heather Steadman said. "I'm not going. It's too much. I haven't gone to any of the playoff games. I'll go again next season."
There will be at least one constant, at least one bridge in the Bruins' organization between the last good times and the present good times. That would be the opera singer who didn't know anything about hockey, didn't know where the Garden was located. Rene Rancourt is still the singer of the national anthem 35 years later.
"You can tell when the big games arrive," he said, familiar now with the job, familiar with the nuances. "You can feel the excitement when you go onto the ice. People tend to sing along for the big games. It used to bother me when they did that. If everyone else is singing, why do they need me? But now I'm fine with it. The big games, the last chorus, all you can hear are the people singing at the end."
Standing ovations for eating pizza. Singing for the national anthem.
Back to the Boston Bruins' future.
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Esposito (7) joined the Bruins in 1967 and scored 453 goals over the next eight seasons—many on rebounds and deflections in front of the net. With Orr's knees giving out, Boston traded Esposito 12 games into the '75--76 season in order to acquire future Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park.
The most inglorious moment of dapper coach Don Cherry's five-year stint came in Game 7 against the Canadiens in the Cup semifinals. Up a goal in the last two minutes, the Bruins were penalized for having too many men on the ice. Montreal tied the game on the power play, then scored the series-winner in OT.
The Bruins traded for Neely on his 21st birthday, and the rugged forward quickly became a star. He scored 221 goals for Boston before suffering a knee injury in the '91 playoffs on a vicious check from Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. Neely hobbled his way through parts of five more seasons before retiring.
There was fog on the ice at the aging (and un-air-conditioned) Garden for Game 4 of the Cup finals—then the lights went out. G.M. Harry Sinden (above) told the media the game would be replayed in Edmonton two nights later. The Oilers went on to sweep the series.
In the Bruins' fifth—and until now, last—trip to the Stanley Cup finals since '72, they again met the powerful Oilers. Andy Moog (35) stopped 28 shots during a tense Game 1 battle that stretched late into a third overtime before Edmonton's Petr Klima scored the winner. Its spirit broken, Boston fell in five games.
Chara (33), the captain, led the celebratory charge on Thomas—that's backup goalie Tuukka Rask (40) behind—after Boston beat Tampa Bay 1--0 in Game 7 of the conference finals. The win was redemptive for the Bruins, who last spring blew a 3--0 series lead against the Flyers and crashed out in the second round.
Bourque, a five-time Norris Trophy winner, was a stalwart of Boston's blue line for more than 20 seasons. But he wanted desperately to win a Stanley Cup, and with the Bruins enduring a losing season, the club traded him to the Avalanche. The following season Bourque hoisted the Cup in Colorado.