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They are the forgotten team in town. Their game is seen as the sporting equivalent of “third world.” Gasbags on talk radio use them as a punching bag. Not one sports columnist from the region’s alleged “newspaper of record” has seen fit to write a single column about them all season. Yet the Bruins bear on.
The late great Bill Crowley, chief tub-thumper for the Red Sox back when that task obliged its bearer to wear a flak-jacket, used to say: “It doesn’t bother me when they are kicking the living daylights out of us. It’s when they couldn’t care less that I worry. In sports, indifference is fatal.”
Actually, entering this season the Bruins might have gladly embraced “indifference” having fallen into a state of irrelevance bordering on anonymity.
This sorrowful situation grieves the few of us left in the local media who remember when this team was the chippiest, spunkiest, and most, interesting, entertaining and charming collection of kids on our sporting block. You think there was giddiness in the streets when the Patriots came of age or the Red Sox finally achieved redemption? It was hardly greater than the explosion of joy that occasioned the ‘‘Big Bad Bruins’’ first Cup triumph in the sweet spring of 1970. Alas, as it turned out all the ecstasy was fleeting; having no more staying power than Bobby Orr’s ravaged knees. And so now it’s been 36 years since we sipped from the Cup with no end in sight to the drought.
But at least they are competitive again and they have their self-respect back. They are in shape, don’t quit, stand up for one another, and take no guff. For the bearers of the black and gold tradition that has always been the bottom line. Problem is for the last dozen years or so they’ve never quite managed to get beyond that very first step in the seemingly endless and fruitless process of restoration.
Nor am I confident that what is happening this season is not the same old story; one step forward to be followed by two back. That’s been the pattern since the Brian Sutter stewardship in the early ’90s. Since then the Bruins have with gathering monotony mounted about a half dozen rebuilding programs with a couple -- an early example under Pat Burns and a misleading one under Mike Sullivan on the eve of the catastrophic labor meltdown -- actually seeming quite promising at the time. But invariably every such scheme crashed, sinking as well yet another coach.
Meanwhile, the Harry Sinden era, one of the most robust in the history of sports in our town, came to a bitter end and that was entirely unjust. The last three years, including the year there was no season, have been appalling. Hockey simply ceased to matter around here, which to those of us with long memories is simply astounding.
Is it different this time? I have no idea. Moreover, even by inferring that remote possibility I’m violating a solemn vow made with much gnashing of teeth to never again get optimistic about these guys until they at least win a single round of playoffs, something they have accomplished only once in the last 14 years and not at all in this millennium. Raising the Bruins banner is risky business. The last time I attempted it around the holidays they promptly went on a seven game skid that remains their darkest hour of this season. But I’m back again daring to believe it will be different this time. You can blame Claude Julien.
It’s odd how little we know about the new Bruins coach. There’s been no rush to get acquainted, which may be understandable given that the average life span of a Bruins bench boss in the modern era is less than two seasons with the last of them being invariably miserable. Julien is the Bruins 14th coach in 22 years. You are wary of getting too keen on a fellow you know is inevitably doomed. Still more to the point, when he was hired Julien, who was curtly and summarily dismissed after serving only one full season as coach of the Canadiens and less than one full season as coach of the Devils, seemed a riper than usual candidate to eventually join the long gray line of failed and fired Bruins skippers.
That’s the main reason people scoffed when he got tabbed last summer to replace the woefully miscast Dave Lewis whose one year on the job was disastrous. Other reasons included the team’s palpably thin resources -- a condition exacerbated by the wretched personnel decisions of the reactionary ownership at the time of the labor dispute -- their lightly regarded stable of prospects, their even more lightly regarded and inexperienced front-office, their meager off-season moves. Never has a coach of anything in this town begun his task burdened with lower expectations. For Julien, that may turn out to have been one helluva blessing.
From a distance, Julien seems an interesting chap. He has the face of an old middleweight who survived the savage ring wars of the ’50s with his wits intact and few illusions. There’s something slightly battered but unbowed about his demeanor. He seems candid and fair, loyal yet no one to trifle with. All of which blends nicely into the stereotypical profile of the tried and true hockey-lifer of the old school and there is no more admirable breed in all of sports. Thus far, he’s clearly commanded the respect of his troops. No coach they’ve had since Burns has seemed in firmer control.
All of which leads to the haunting question. Why did he flop so dramatically in Montreal and New Jersey? Are we being set up again? Do we never learn?
As this is written, there are 18 games left in the regular season. They are third in their division; five points behind first place Montreal with two games in hand. But it’s the overall conference ranking that determines the eight playoff combatants and presently they rank sixth out of the 15 teams in the East, five points ahead of Buffalo with two games in hand. They have 10 games left with conference foes so a run for the division title is possible. If the playoffs began tomorrow they would open against Ottawa, a team they can beat.
As of the writing, they’ve won six straight and garnered 15 of a possible 16 points in their last eight games with five of the wins featuring the sort of late-game, heroics they were incapable of mounting in recent seasons. They enter the stretch-run as the hottest team in the league and continue to prevail despite the huge loss of their two finest young players, Patrice Bergeron and Andrew Alberts. Both were wasted in shameless acts of thuggery by those eternal thugs, the Philadelphia Flyers, with both “acts” going, of course, unpunished.
That ragtime alone would have been a sufficient excuse for the Bruins to pack it in and recent Bruins teams would have seized on the opportunity. They’ve been offered plenty such ‘‘excuses.’’ Seven regulars have been lost to injury for extended periods including Manny Fernandez, who was imported at a heavy price to be the number one goalie. Thus far he’s performed weakly in two games. But none of it deters them. Clearly, Claude Julien doesn’t buy excuses. So, neither does his team. By the way, that’s in the best Bruins’ tradition.
Will it last? Will it survive the rigors of March let alone the torrid triage of the playoffs? I don’t know. I don’t do prophecy.
But I want them to succeed. I want Claude Julien, the hockey-lifer, to make it big. I want Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard to become household names, and Milan Lucic to become the latest sporting rage in our town, and Tim Thomas to be recognized as a class act. I want this team to get a break and re-claim its rightful place in the region’s turgid jock culture.
I know better. And I’ll probably regret it. But I’m back on the bandwagon.