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Winter winding down...

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It wasn’t exactly an epiphany but suddenly late on a Sunday early in the unforgiving month of March it became stunningly clear that the winter here in balmy New England was just about over. At least in terms of our eternal sporting aspirations, that is.

Because the standard bearers of our tender winter dreams -- both of them --are on the rocks. The lights will dim early on Causeway Street this season. Not that we haven’t been down this road before.

Grumbling about the Celtics, which has been gathering like a cross continental blast of El Nino ever since the holidays, recently achieved a ripe crescendo when the estimable Green endured one of the more sobering humiliations of franchise history; a mindless drubbing at the hands of arguably the worst team in NBA history, the forlorn 2010 New Jersey Nets. Moreover, it happened on the Celts’ own storied parquet. Ah, the shame of it.

Conventional wisdom holds they are too old, too frail, over their heads, and out of tricks. Of course, the Celtics will always have history on their side. It’s the legacy of Red. Those of us who respect all that out of a lifetime’s dutiful indoctrination will let others fling the first shovel of dirt. But such sentiment sways few of the NBA’s contemporary smart set. They smell comeuppance and they revel in it. That’s also a legacy of Red.

Moreover, they have the facts on their side. At the holidays, the Celts were stride for stride with the Cleveland upstarts vying for the league’s second best mark. In March they sheepishly veer on ninth. They’ve been roughly a .500 team these last two months. In the woefully imbalanced NBA, about 10 teams dominate to varying degrees and 10 more are utterly hopeless and effectively eliminated by Halloween while the remaining 10 wedged in the middle waver between high and low mediocrity. It is into that last shaky category that the Celtics seem now beckoned.

Hey, maybe Michael Finley can save them. He’s only 37. And then there are the Bruins.

It was the grim sight of their leading playmaker, the artsy-craftsy Marc Savard, being wheeled off the ice on a gurney that may be remembered as the moment the curtain came down on yet another season of false hopes and high pretension. That only some four months ago knowledgeable people were talking about this team as a Stanley Cup contender seems laughable, though by the time Savard got bushwhacked in Pittsburgh all of that had been rendered moot, for what it’s worth.

These Bruins have been going nowhere since November. Take away the overtime nonsense, by which the NHL cleverly pretends a loss need not be a loss, and you have a team that -- as it plods into the second week of March -- has played 64 games and not won 35 of them. It’s unthinkable that such a team should be considered a playoff contender; even in the NHL. But until Savard got whacked, they could at least pretend otherwise, even as management in its wisdom was doing little to shore up the illusion at the trade deadline.

Savard’s injury says a lot about the inconsistencies of the contemporary NHL product that make you squirm. It was an obviously rotten cheap shot, delivered by a journeyman Penguin forward named Matt Cooke, that leveled Savard probably for the rest of the season although if the effects stretched longer it would be no surprise because Savard is fragile as NHL warriors go.

Late in a close game, Savard had just unleashed a shot from the slot and was following through, off balance and defenseless, when he got blind-sided by Cooke who lowered his heavily padded shoulder and cocked his elbow as he rammed into the helpless Bruin at full speed leveling his heaviest impact on the side of Savard’s head, where he was obviously aiming. Cooke made no effort to soften the blow. It was vicious and clearly intended to clean Savard’s bloody clock. Yet, there was no penalty.

In the new NHL, they now have four on-ice officials. In reasoning that can only be termed “Idiotic,” they think that makes it a cleaner game. But the resulting clutter only means the on-ice officials main task is to simply stay out of the way. It’s hardly a surprise no striped-shirted chap detected anything wrong with Cooke’s outrageous hit although maybe one of them might have checked the replay while the doctors, trainers, EMT’s and priests (should last rites be required) hovered around Savard for what seemed an eternity while he remained conked out as everyone feared the worst. Ever resolute, the officials maintained their dignity as they watched, arms folded, and the Penguins, including Cooke, stood by, looking gravely concerned.

More surprising, only one Bruin seemed appropriately agitated. Not surprisingly it was Patrice Bergeron, their very able center, who has been on the receiving end of comparable indignities. Two seasons ago Bergeron’s career almost ended, and briefly his life was even in doubt after he was ambushed by a Philadelphia Flyers’ clown whose sporting ethics compared favorably with those of Cooke. The only difference being that at least the guy who cut down Bergeron got a minor penalty. It’s the thought that counts, you need to understand.

Bergeron, a mild mannered and classy player, protested politely to the officials and even appealed to the fabled Sidney Crosby, boyish captain of the Pens. The hero of all Canada at least had the decency to look embarrassed. We’ll grant him that much. As Savard got wheeled off to the emergency room, Penguin fans rose and clapped while the Penguin players politely tapped their sticks on the ice. It’s the minimum that hockey tradition obliges.

In another time, to be sure, there would have been one more obligation and that would have been for the Bruins to promptly square things with Mr. Cooke. In the old days Cooke’s impertinence would have inspired a full-scale donnybrook. One can but imagine how the Don Cherry Bruins, featuring Stan Jonathan, Terry O’Reilly, John Wensink, Wayne Cashman and company, might have reacted. The man in charge back then, Harry Sinden, would have insisted on no less.

But in today’s brave, new and politically correct National Hockey League that’s not possible. Nor is it barbaric to wonder at such times as this about the wisdom of that.

I maintain that in the old days NHL players policed themselves much better than on-ice officials do nowadays and even if they stationed 10 officials on the ice it would still be so. The prospect of having to contend with a Thornton, Lucic, Stuart, or Chara might have deterred the bully Cooke from taking such a needless and vicious cheap-shot at Savard, ending his season or worse.

Alas, such implicit restraints are no longer in place. The game’s allegedly cleaner and more polite. Yet there’s more “intent-to-injure” incidents in a week now than one formerly saw in an entire season and it’s entirely because the brigands who deliver such nastiness are protected by new rules allowing goons like Cooke to get away with it. So, how does that make it a better game?

Coach Claude Julien should have said “the heck with it” and sent Thornton or even Chara over the boards to settle accounts with Mr. Cooke and so what if you lost the game, which they did anyway. That’s what Cherry or Sinden would have done. But Julien didn’t although he did whine about the unfairness of it all, after the game was over even as Savard was being treated at a nearby hospital. On that dubious note the season doubtless ends. So too might Coach Julien’s tenure in Boston. He might regret not having gone down in flames, flinging chairs across the ice like Cherry might have done.

A notably harsh winter grinds to an end. One’s lonely gaze shifts to the Sunbelt where the baseball boys are bending over trying to touch their toes. It’s called “Spring Training” and it’s a delightful idyll and for the last days of winter we can bury ourselves in its harmless irrelevance.

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