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Here we have the Red Sox blissfully rolling along Glory Road and the Patriots threatening to go unbeaten, unsullied and uncontrite even as the Celtics are allegedly experiencing a metamorphosis that’s been sealed and sanctified in Rome, no less.
Whereupon to the deafening roar of total silence against a backdrop of utter indifference, along come the poor little Bruins.
It’s not as if the Bruins are all that terrible. The Celtics were significantly lousier while clumsily bagging games just last season. Nor is it that the others haven’t had darker days. The Red Sox drew only about 800,000 customers the year before “The Impossible Dream.” And the Bruins’ current front office incompetence is far from unprecedented hereabouts. In their checkered history, the Patriots have had at least a halfdozen management teams that were laughably more inept. Rest in peace, Clive Rush.
In historical terms, the Bruins more than hold their own. Their legends are as lofty and their ancients as worthy as any team that ever played anything. They did not go 86 years between championships. It didn’t take them more than four decades to get their act together.
Thus there’s no reasonable explanation for the scorn the Bruins presently endure, other than the luck of the draw. Boston is a tough sports market. The Red Sox are voracious in their command of a mindless allegiance. The Patriots are determined to be as much or more so. Both are floating through an era in which they’ve seemed charmed. As for the Celtics, the mystique of the Age of Auerbach remains inviolate and it is coated with Teflon. Nothing sticks. They get away with nonsense. In such a market, a relatively ordinary team like the Bruins, subject to the ordinary ebb and flow, is inevitably the odd man out. They are the scapegoat. It may be unfair. But then they are inflicted with an ownership that invites contempt.
So it is that this space observes the opening of another Bruins run in another National Hockey League season. This is the 33rd such inaugural and far and away the most pessimistic, unless you count the season when they didn’t have a season. The league remains shaky. The Bruins look hopeless.
This is the conventional wisdom. Every preview I have seen -- by local hockey pundits and international savants alike -- has echoed the same dreary theme; the league is troubled, the Bruins are bad, and no one gives a hoot. Repeat it enough, over and over and over, and it becomes a mantra of sorts leading inevitably to self-fulfilling prophecy. The Bruins’ problems at the local level perfectly mirror the game’s problems at the national level featuring a battered image, awful ratings, weak leadership that’s out of touch and a product engulfed by ennui. It’s a litany of woe. Like the Bruins, the NHL plays the role of “scapegoat” and it’s beginning to look irreversible.
But in the case of this team in this town it doesn’t have to be such a total downer. An upgrade on the ice could still provoke an appreciable upswing in public interest. There are limits. The region has changed and Boston itself has changed even more. It’s highly doubtful that a love affair as gushing as the one that the “Big Bad Bruins” of 35-40 years ago enjoyed would be possible again.
Because the grip the Red Sox and Patriots have on the culture is too strong, while the Celtics are the Celtics, ever able to shamelessly parade their icons and wax on their memories when the customers get antsy. Moreover, there is a limit to how much affection -- as well as big bucks -- the sports consumer can willingly waste on the subject. Nor would the media, which has progressively become rabidly anti-hockey, ever tolerate a resurgence of genuine hockey zeal in these parts. It’s not on their agenda. This is no longer a “hockey town,” no longer the “Hub of Hockey.” I say that with considerable regret.
Some sort of agreeable middle ground, however, remains possible. A legitimate Cup-contender (they don’t have to win it) would stir latent passions and give the lingering old guard something to smile about. The Bruins base may be thin; a sliver compared with what the Red Sox enjoy. But give them something to believe in and a hard core of 100,000 fierce devotees can sustain the franchise. The game has always thrived at the youth and amateur levels. As long as ponds still freeze in the winter and blades crunch as kids scale them there will be a vein that can be tapped. The response to a Bruin revival, if limited, would still be charming. Unfortunately, there is none in sight.
One tries to avoid kissing off this team the first week of the season. They deserve at least one spin around the league before they get buried. A decade or so ago, the Red Sox lost on opening day when Lee Smith, the reliever, blew sky high in the ninth and the headline in our local tabloid the next day read, “Wait until Next Year!” Such silliness is routine in this town. But it’s unfair and it can also be stupid. Nobody sensed a Patriots revival had arrived when Tom Brady trotted from the bench at the beginning of the millennium, and the odds posted in Las Vegas on the Red Sox winning the pennant in March of 1967 were 100-1. You have to allow for the improbable. Otherwise, what would be the point of even playing the games?
Still, while I’d be delighted to be proven wrong, there’s no basis for optimism. This year the posted line on the Bruins winning the Cup is -- you guessed it -- 100 to one and I’m confident that both the conventional wisdom and the boys from Vegas are right on the money.
Admittedly, it’s near impossible to appraise the NHL anymore. Thanks to mindless, runaway expansion, there are too many teams that you rarely get to see. But some notions are simply logical. The Bruins were an also-ran last season. Whereupon, the heavily over-matched and under-experienced management team now in place did precious little to make them better. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to rush to the deduction that therefore they are fairly certain to be an also-ran again this year. And by “also-ran,” we mean a team that’s “out of the money;” not just no Cup but no playoffs, either.
How much more of that can be tolerated? Some hope there could be some nice irony at work here. The theory goes that if the Bruins go further into the tank, Owner Jeremy Jacobs and his clan will at last become exasperated and dump the team. Nice theory but it completely misreads Jacobs and his unpleasant brood.
If the Bruins no longer reap huge profits, the building does and they own the building. Much more to the point, Jacobs is a heavyweight in the highest councils of the league and he delights in being a genuine NHL poobah. Maybe this tells you as much as you need to know about the state of the National Hockey League.
If the boys from Buffalo were sensitive chaps they might recognize that the party is over for them in this town. Trust is gone. So is good will. For a generation, the brilliance of Harry Sinden kept the team viable and the graciousness of Nate Greenberg sustained its positive image. Sinden, Greenberg, and company softened the harshness of an abrasive ownership.
Now they are gone, having been purged and rather crudely, at that. So there is no one to spare Clan Jacobs from the wrath of an embittered clientele. It is called, “justice.”