June 19, 2011

IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT IS THE BEST OF TIMES:

Deep In The Heart Of The City: 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 (LEIGH MONTVILLE , 6/06/11, Sports Illustrated)

"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.

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Posted by at June 19, 2011 7:18 AM
  

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