Last Thursday’s Bruins-Pittsburgh matchup was one of those rare moments in sports that comes along maybe once a year, if you’re lucky. And even then, only if your team is relevant. It was one of those games that leaves even the most self-respecting sports columnist no choice but to open up the file marked “Tired Cliches: Do Not Open Unless No Other Phrase Will Suffice” and pull out the words “Statement Game.”
Because it was the ultimate Statement Game, at least by NHL regular-season standards. And the statement the Bruins made with that performance was loud and crystal clear: “We have no guts.”
There’s no other conclusion any of us can draw. That game against the Penguins was an example of all the motivational planets aligning at once in a sort of disharmonic convergence. There was the revenge factor, as Marc Savard was laying in a hospital bed in a paper dress, looking on like an HD cable-era George Gipp. And Matt Cooke, the man who put him there and got away with it scot-free, sneering at the Bruins from the Pittsburgh bench. They figured to have probably twice their regular NESN audience as even casual hockey fans like me would be turning away from March Madness and "The Office" to tune in and see what the B's were made of. Then there was the empty suit of Colin Campbell in the building, who had made the trip for the sole purpose of lecturing the Bruins about how two wrongs don’t make a right and when they point a finger at Cooke then three fingers are pointing back at them and maybe this wouldn’t have happened if they could just play nice with others. Then, in a miracle of scheduling, the 1970 Big, Bad Bruins were on hand. A collection of guys so badass that they’ll live forever because Heaven doesn’t want them and Hell is afraid they’ll take over. All these factors combined into a Pluperfect Storm of Vengeance.
And in front of a packed house of lifelong Bruins fans — all suffering from Restless Leg Syndrome and dying to see the ol’ Black and Gold tie down the jerseys, put on the foil, drop the sticks and gloves and rain an unhealthy dose of old time payback down upon Pittsburgh — the B's rewarded us with ... nothing.
The Bruins came out with all the fury and intensity of a postal worker rummaging around in the pile out back looking for that package you came in for. And by the first intermission, the people in the stands caught on that this is all they were getting. And like the post office customers waiting in line, all they were left to do was yell to themselves inside their heads. “The guy’s still wandering around back there! Now he’s talking to the other guy! Let’s goooo! Now they’re icing the puck! C’mon c’mooonnn ...”
And it only got worse after the game, if that’s even possible. Coach Claude Julien said you can’t make excuses, and then proceeded to do exactly that. Something about the guys being tired and some of them having the sniffles or the importance of having a hot breakfast. It was hard to hear what he said over the howls of derisive laughter coming from the visitors locker room. Especially from Cooke himself, who could barely contain his glee. He’d bullied the Bruins once, and they responded by going up to him like Flick going up to Scut Farkas, offering up his own arm to being twisted and screaming “Uncle! Unn-cccllle!” without so much as a struggle. And Matt Cooke had yellow eyes. So help me God, yellow eyes.
The only guy on the roster who showed any pride at all was Shawn Thornton, who proved he was worthy of looking Johnny McKenzie in the eye and shaking his hand, even if he didn’t succeed in getting the Bruins’ lunch money back. (Author’s note: You can always count on a Thornton to step into the fray when no one else has the guts. But I’m more of a quiet hero.)
So the question is not, “Are your 2009-10 Boston Bruins a collection of unmotivated, gutless wonders, disinterested in sticking up for each other and treating the paying customers like their money means something?” Because they are. They’ve proven it. That issue is settled, and last Thursday was the final word on the matter. The question is, “Now what do we do about it?”
I mean, even if you’re a hockey fan and you’ve always loved the Bruins, can you go on caring when it’s been proven in a clinical study right before your eyes that they don’t? I’ll die before I pull out the cliche about “rooting for laundry,” but when your team has shown undeniably they’re just mailing it in, do you just go on, uh ... cheering for the, um ... uniform?
With their crappy, indifferent play, the Bruins have put their fans in a no-win situation. Stop going to the games, and they’re giving up something they like doing. Keep going, and they’re not only rewarding those who have short-changed them, they’re also wasting their time on something that will be boring and tedious and is guaranteed to end badly. Just like what I’m doing with the final season of “Lost.”
The fact is that not every Boston team is worth liking every season. There’s something about the group dynamic that one season will make a collection of guys buy into the program, sacrifice for the greater good and, win or lose, be worth rooting for. The next year, you take basically that same roster, make a change or two, and suddenly the camaraderie is different, motivations change and the leadership isn’t what it was, and you’re left with an entirely different team. In the case of this Bruins team, those changes have been for the worse, so they’ve quit. And now that we’re all smelling the dead woodchuck under the porch, we’ve got to decide how long we stay with this team before we demand someone clean out under there.
Lord knows we’ve seen it before with every team in Boston. This whole Savard-Cooke story reminds me of a Red Sox story from the “25 players/25 cabs” days. If I was a better researcher (and didn’t drink 20,000 scotches in the years since it happened) I could tell you the player involved, but I can’t. But one of the Sox regulars got hit by a pitch, so he charged the mound. One of his teammates came screaming from the dugout in full sprint toward the infield to jump into the fracas. But as he got a couple of steps onto the grass, he turned around to find the whole Sox bench still sitting there on its hands. He was the only one who had run out to help. And the punchline was that Ol’ Whatshisname had been with the Sox less than a week. So, what he was doing was just muscle memory. A reaction. He was doing what he’d done his whole life: have his teammate’s back. But that’s not how things were done on this particular Sox team. And predictably, the club went nowhere. Cause, meet effect.
When you’re a kid, it’s easy to root for a team just because it's your team. But part of being an adult is allowing the innocence of youth give way to the wiser, more discerning judgments of adulthood. In a world with a thousand channels, unlimited entertainment options, hundreds of hours of sports every week, scotch, and Erin Andrews doing the Lambada, life is too short to waste following a team that can’t convince us they’ve got as much pride as a federal civil servant.
There’s a story about Lyndon Johnson that I can’t confirm but I believe to be true. That he once asked one of his aides why the public didn’t like him very much. And the aide told him, “Because, Mr. President, you’re not very likable.” I’m sure that guy ended up in a landfill somewhere (if Oliver Stone was right about LBJ), but his point was well taken. Sometimes a person, or a team, just isn’t very likable. Winning obviously can cover up a lot of unlikability, but just as often you can love a team that’s not going anywhere just because it plays hard, pulls together, is tough and earns your respect. The first example that comes to mind would be last year’s Bruins team.
What a difference a year makes. The good news is that there are plenty of season ticket packages available for next year.