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Christmas may come only once a year for the rank and file. But if you’re a sufficiently fanatic and fully invested citizen of all three of our jock nations then every day is a holiday. If you’re from New England and Boston’s your Hub, it’s the sports story of the year.
The Red Sox! The Patriots! The Celtics! There’s not a day of the calendar year that does not find one of these home fires burning. There’s not a day from January the first to December the last that does not feature a game, an impending game, and a gamut of related issues, many of them of a character deemed “life or death.” One can neatly wrap him or herself in a fantasy world of sporting bliss 365 days a year. Think of how much relatively unpleasant reality you can thereby safely avoid. How sweet it is!
More and more, everyone wishing to be anyone hereabouts must pledge undying allegiance not to just one of these raucous causes, but all three. It’s rather like a loyalty oath. It may prove nothing but you chose not to take one at your infinite peril. There is nothing more amusing than a bandwagon, nor scarier than the mentality that goes with it. It takes a lot of guts to say, ‘‘Frankly my dears I don’t give a dang’’ (for the want of a better word).
So I won’t -- although I’m tempted -- and will take instead the high road by proposing that it would be even nicer if we had four bandwagons careening merrily, season after season. That would be a legitimate grand slam; something that’s never been accomplished anywhere at any time. Might the Bruins yet increase our supremacy and add to our wretched excess? Citizens of all of North America and half of Europe cringe at the prospect.
It will come as a shock to the new breed of Red Sox and Patriot diehards and maybe only holders of AARP cards remember it well. But there was a time when the Bruins were mightier than the Red Sox in the public esteem while it was the local football team that was the certified joke. We’re not proposing role reversals here. That would be mean spirited. But we are suggesting that the Bruins deserve a slice of the glory, at least in the historical sense.
Although admittedly until the last few weeks they have not deserved to be so much as whispered about in such a context. The contempt they’ve been made to endure lately has been well earned. They’ve been doormats the last two years, a veritable no-show in the playoffs the last decade, a team, lacking spark or charm the better part of 15 and a team that’s not swigged from “The Cup” in 35, as every New England school kid too well knows. That’s a long, painfully slow, thoroughly agonizing slide from grace. Three months ago there was not the remotest hint of looming redemption.
Some honesty is obliged here. At the start of this season, when the Bruins were the universal choice to finish last in their conference and be eliminated from the playoffs by Martin Luther King Day, I took perverse delight in piling on with the abuse. Vexed by a generation of reactionary ownership, infuriated by that ownership’s mean-spirited treatment of honorable veterans of the organization, convinced the teams’ new leadership was pathetically unqualified, I rather gleefully joined the crowd and wrote them off, for which I apologize. If only for the moment.
Because it would be premature to say they’ve blossomed into a playoff caliber team over-night, let alone a potential post-season force. Their injury curse, which seems to transcend the ages, may have already doomed them in the long run.
Still, a bend in the road may have been reached. This season’s Bruins have a little character and play with grit. They feature an honest two-way game, not seen lately. They don’t get pushed around like some sorry waif of an expansion team that has no identity, which has happened too often since the Sutter years. They even appear to be in shape, not always clear in recent seasons. They don’t roll over in the third period as they have the last two and they’re focused, certainly not the case last season. Once again, they command respect. From those who wear the black and gold, that’s the minimum we should expect. All of which, along with a tender nucleus of seemingly incubating talent, gives rise to hope.
As of the writing, only three teams in the National Hockey League with its ridiculously far-flung and mostly anonymous 30 (and counting) franchises have better records (Ottawa, Detroit and Dallas). On the recent extraordinarily arduous, four-week stretch -- when they played 11 of 13 games on the road -- they lost just four. Only four teams have given up fewer goals. If the playoffs were to begin tomorrow, they would be seeded second. All of this is impressive for a team that finished last season in utter shame, degrading its colors.
On the other hand, against the four worthiest teams in the conference (Devils, Senators, Rangers, Flyers and their newly revived arch nemesis, the Canadiens) their record is 1-8. It suggests this may be playing to their maximum potential; neither a bad team nor a dominant one. If so, watch for a nice, uplifting regular season followed by a swift and merciless exit in the playoffs. Sound familiar?
Their prospects might have been genuine were it not for the outrageous calamity of losing Patrice Bergeron, needlessly and wantonly. Only 22, this kid might yet become a franchise player if his encounter seven weeks ago with Flyers’ roughneck Randy Jones has not put an end to such dreams. Jones’ brutal hit against the boards left young Bergeron with a broken nose, a major concussion, and a lot of doubt about whether he will either play again this season of ever be the player he used to be.
For that, the craven Jones -- another in a long line of Brad Street bullies -- got a two-game suspension from the allegedly vigilant, anti-violence police of the new-look, NHL. What a joke! But then I don’t recall the Bruins ever getting a break from the League’s Mikado’s.
As usual, the injury factor has been brutal. Three other players have been sidelined by cheap hits. They’ve lost the Quiet Man, Sean Thornton, their foremost off-season free agent signing, for three months. Goalie Manny Fernandez, their foremost off-season acquisition by trade, is gone for the season. A groin pull now sidelines Goalie Tim Thomas, their de facto MVP, for upwards to a month. Sitting innocently on the bench, their second leading scorer -- Marco Sturm -- takes a puck in the eye.
On and on it goes. This franchise has been star-crossed for 40 years, ever since Bobby Orr -- the ultimate “franchise player” -- got whacked with terminal knee damage at the age of 20.
But hockey people don’t whine. This too will pass. It will require a miracle for this team to pull itself up by its skate strings this season and take its proper place in the Grand Parade of Boston sport. But you get the sense that Claude Julien -- the new coach -- might just be equal to that awesome challenge. This Julien is a mighty interesting character; a confident, resolute, hockey-lifer who has been through the wars and survived with his principles intact. Getting to know this fellow may be interesting.
One hopes so. I confess to some bias where this quaint team, this battered franchise, this noble game is concerned. Save them a spot on the bandwagon. That’s my holiday wish for you. And to all, a good night.