Who knew? At first, no one but the Bruins

Toast of the town: Kostas Klokelis, from Framingham, Mass., toasts from a window overlooking the duck boats carrying the Boston Bruins and their families as they roll through downtown during a rally in celebration of their NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff victory Saturday, June 18. AP PhotoToast of the town: Kostas Klokelis, from Framingham, Mass., toasts from a window overlooking the duck boats carrying the Boston Bruins and their families as they roll through downtown during a rally in celebration of their NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff victory Saturday, June 18. AP PhotoIn the end what made it so grand and unforgettable was the simple fact that it all came barreling out of nowhere like a spectacular thunderstorm late on a hot summer day. It was totally unheralded. No one expected it. No one predicted it. And even as it was happening, no one believed it would lead to where it led. Great sporting moments are always best when they take you completely by surprise.

What made this adventure notably delicious was that it stretched over two full months – 9 weeks/63 days – building slowly, relentlessly, impossibly, and allowing us time to catch the rhythm of the thing and fall in step.

Like Ravel’s Bolero, it began with low and guttural notes that were almost morose, gradually climbing, note after note and beat after beat, steadily rising in tone with an ever more pounding intensity and surging every couple of days until at last a certain inevitability held sway and we realized we were headed for the brink and it became only a question of how hard we might land when the music came crashing to a close.

That’s the magic carpet ride the Bruins gave us this spring of 2011. It was what the Red Sox did in the fall of 2004 and the Patriots did in the winter of 2001 and the Celtics did in their first and most dashing caper way back in 1957. But for my money, it was most like what the Red Sox did in 1967: Like that team, these Bruins evolved painstakingly over a period of weeks, catching our fancy a precious win at a time while shaking off some brutal bouts with adversity and defying the conventional wisdom that insisted they weren’t that good and most of all because the whole happy madness came right out of the blue.

Some teams make us proud, appeal to our ego. Others settle our scores, redeem us. But it is those that charm us and make us smile that we remember best. That’s the quality this Bruins team had. We were impressed with what they did, but what we most liked was that they were so likeable. They were smart on the ice, smarter still off the ice. They kept their mouths shut. They never whimpered. They not only played good, they looked good. The late George Frazier, an arbiter of style, would have said, “They have duende,” a word he defined as “that certain something that sets persons [or teams] apart.”

Maybe it accounts for the extraordinary reaction to their triumph on the part of a region that had almost forgotten about them as a team and fairly written off their old-fashioned game and its fundamentalist precepts. It may also be why what they did will retain a favored place in our sporting folk lore well after mightier deeds have receded. But what most appealed to us is the fact that what they did was tough, very bloody tough.

What they ask of the men of hockey – near as harsh a game as football – is absurd. The Bruins’ task stretched over 9 months and 107 games, which is preposterous. Of that interminable gauntlet, 25 (more than the length of an entire football season, including exhibitions) were playoffs where the pace and nastiness are ratcheted up about three-fold.

En route, they had to win a sudden-death Game Seven three times, which no team in the history of sports had ever done. In the Finals, they had to rebound after losing the first two games, which only three NHL teams had done in the last half century. Indeed, they did it twice – Montreal jumped out 2-0 in the opening round – and that is something they’d never before done in their own long history. There was no end to the obstacles, nor was this unique to the Bruins. If it’s The Cup you desire, there’s no other way.

Was it not madness to ask the Bruins and Canucks to play the two most important games of their lives within a 48-hour span and travel nearly 3,000 miles in between? That’s after playing five furious games the previous 11 days and traveling more than 10,000 miles. Only a hockey player would do that without so much as a blink. It’s a brutally hard game.

The only thing the Finals lacked was a Game-Seven epic comparable to the masterpiece the Bruins and Tampa Lightning conjured to end their terrific showdown. The best game of the entire playoffs was that finish to the superbly played semi-finals when the referees stuck the whistles in their back pocket and let the lads orchestrate a near-perfect hockey game, with every man on deck being equal to the moment. It was, roughly, hockey’s equivalent of Game Six of the 1975 World Series that ended with Fisk’s homer off the foul-pole.

With a record North American television audience tuned in, such a gem to end the final round – with the desperation of sudden death hovering over every sweep up and down the ice – would have been a thrilling ending to a fabulous Stanley Cup festival and a huge boost for this long-suffering game. Unfortunately, the Canucks had nothing left in their tank. A whipped, seriously bruised team led by a wiped-out goalie took to the ice that last night representing hockey-mad Canada’s tender hopes and when they fell behind early, they ran up the white flag, utterly embarrassing all of Canada.

Conventional wisdom holds the Canucks lacked character. That’s poppycock.  They had plenty of character until the Bruins knocked it out of them in playing with a tenacity and spirit awesome to behold from the moment Nathan Horton, the ace sniper who had delivered the two most important goals of the playoffs, was ambushed by a bush-league Canucks defenseman who had targeted him in the sort of vicious act this game can no longer tolerate. To say the Canucks lacked guts is to deny the Bruins much deserved credit.

The series, the season, Bruins’ history, Boston’s eminence, the very annals of the NHL turned dramatically on the dirty hit on Horton. The incident galvanized the Bruins, cementing the bond that made them special and lifting their resolve to a level beyond dispute. It’s reasonable to believe had the Canucks not stupidly and needlessly bushwhacked Horton, they would have won the series. And the Cup!

Nonetheless, you can and should sympathize with Vancouver. Bearing the hopes of the homeland was no easy load, yet they had the courage to stick their chins out, embracing all of Canada’s vainglorious mission by asserting on banners draped all over the city, “This is what we live for!”

And, alas, die for. The Cup, named for an illustrious Victorian colonialist, remains in heathen anti-colonialist hands for the 18th consecutive year. Then, as if Vancouver’s shame in botching their precious moment was insufficient, along came the lowlife to seal the humiliation by setting the town on fire. You might have thought you were in Detroit or fleeing a soccer game in some Banana Republic. But don’t kid yourself. There but for the bounce of the puck might go any town, even ours.

So what else is new? Good manners are in short supply everywhere. But these Bruins need never apologize. This team had a certain elegant bearing which only those who do not know the game or its people and will soon drop off the bandwagon they rode under a full moon in June find surprising. In their historic run they made a wonderful statement not just for themselves but for their game and its culture.

Enormous credit is due all of them, but especially their core four of Messrs. Chara, Thomas, Recchi, and Bergeron. Such wise and prudent leadership is a joy to behold in any endeavor. And then there is the Coach, that stubby, implacable, unassuming hockey-lifer we all deemed so inadequate just two months ago. When a team achieves the degree of discipline and focus the Bruins exhibited, you need look no farther than the coach. Take a bow, Claude Julien. Lord knows you deserve it.

They may not soon make it back. It’s a hard game that rarely bends twice. But you can be sure of this much. They won’t change. Having reached the very pinnacle of his world, Captain Zdeno Chara reported to his victory parade riding his bicycle. Now there is a man who has his act totally together.

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