On June 15, in the same moment the Bruins won something great, they lost something great. Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals was Mark Recchi’s last career game, so whether the Bruins entered the 2011-12 season as Stanley Cup champions or simply Eastern Conference champs, they would be doing so without one of their alternate captains from a historic season.
With Recchi now retired, someone else will join captain Zdeno Chara and longest-tenured Bruin Patrice Bergeron as bears to bare a letter other than the spoked 'B' on their jerseys.
There are three obvious candidates who come to mind: a two-time Cup champion and resident bruiser (Shawn Thornton), the longest-tenured Bruin not named Tim Thomas or Marc Savard to not have a letter on his sweater (Andrew Ference) and the young star who brings the two things fans love in goals and fights (Milan Lucic).
All three are deserving of the distinction, with Thornton and Ference perhaps more deserving based on their time in the league. Here’s a look at the argument for each one.
Thornton is the everyman in a room full of down-to-earth guys. He’s great with the media, as he answered a question about pressure when down in the conference semifinals vs. the Canadiens by saying, “pressure is five kids and no job.” He is the ultimate believer in the “never get too high, never get too low” mindset, and it’s a lesson his teammates have listened to.
To best illustrate how wide-ranging Thornton’s impact is on the Bruins, consider that Recchi spent the night before Game 7 having a glass of wine with No. 22, Recchi told ESPN Boston this summer. Thornton also sat just a couple spots down from rookie Tyler Seguin in the B's room, and it was Thornton’s motivational talks that Seguin said kept him upbeat during his healthy scratches, despite the fact that the two were essentially competing for the final roster spot. And who did Brad Marchand play with for the first three months of the season?
Thornton’s impact when put in the lineup in Game 3 of the Cup finals was enormous, and it was definitely felt throughout the lineup. Yet it’s just that that might hurt his case when it comes to getting a letter. If the B’s find themselves in a similar situation next year regarding the decision to sit Seguin or Thornton, it sure would look weird if they made their alternate captain a healthy scratch, wouldn’t it?
At the end of the day, Thornton is going to be a major leader on this Bruins team no matter what. An 'A' sure would let the rest of the league know, though.
If you were on the Bruins to the result of the team’s work turn into the selection of Zach Hamill (eighth overall in 2007), you have seen a lot, and you’ve seen them come a long way.
Andrew Ference, like Bergeron, Chara, Tim Thomas, and David Krejci to an extent, is one such Bruin. Acquired in February of 2007, Ference was with the team when it was terrible, and he’s been there as the organization has turned it around.
Ference may stand out given his political activism and his outspoken nature, but he did not cause a ruckus in the dressing room over the course of the championship season. Yes, that is including him saying Daniel Paille’s hit on Raymond Sawada was dirty and had to be taken out of the game. To be completely honest, I didn’t hear him say it because I was with Steve Buckley and Bergeron, the latter of whom said the exact same thing. That was an issue that only some in the media chose to make a big deal of, but it didn't impact the B's.
In fact, the only extra stuff he’s brought have been T-shirts in support of Adam McQuaid (his daughter coined “Darth Quaider,” causing him to customize a T-shirt online. He also sported a Kenny Powers shirt, given the similarities in mullet between McQuaid and Danny McBride’s HBO character) as well as the disgusting late-'80s Bruins jacket he purchased on eBay for $35, the latter of which became a big part of the Cup run and now resides with Recchi as a retirement gift.
While he may not always be on the ice given his history of nagging injuries (he played 60 games or less in three straight seasons before playing 70 last year), the selling point when it comes to Ference’s candidacy that, as much as it may surprise some given the comments regarding Paille, is that he always has his teammates’ backs, and he proved it with his fists rather than his words. Even if Ference couldn’t possibly have a great angle on the play, if he didn’t like the way his teammate went down, somebody was going to pay for it. It’s a trait instilled in some other Bruins (Thornton and Gregory Campbell immediately come to mind), but it was the most obvious with Ference last season.
For a team like the Bruins, having that trait (and being a defenseman doesn’t hurt either) means embodying what the Bruins pride themselves on: disciplined hockey and a damned physical way of bringing it. Throw in the length of time he’s spent in Boston and the respect he’s earned and he’s a great candidate.
Lucic turned in a career year last season, scoring 30 goals as a 22-year old and becoming the first Bruin to reach the mark since Phil Kessel in the 2008-09 season. He also finished with seven fighting majors (tied with Ference for fourth on the team, but just half of Thornton's total).
Back when the Bruins had hit their lowest point in late December, some idiot wrote that Nathan Horton’s lack of production (and, at the time, physicality) may have been a bad influence on Lucic, but the truth is that the two feed off each other. Lucic is the type of player a player would want to play with. His scoring will help your plus-minus and the edge he plays with makes those around him tougher.
Above all, he certainly looks like a player who is in the process of growing into a leader. He is a player today’s young hockey fans look up to, and talking to a kid like Anthony Camara (the Bruins’ third-round pick in June’s draft) gives you the impression that Lucic is among the guys young power-forwards-in-the-making try to model their games after. Lucic is also a good representative of the Bruins with the media – he knows what to say and how to say it honestly.
The issue with Lucic is that his motor can often cause him to run a little hot. Whether or not it was preceded by a dangerous hit that went uncalled (and it was high), the sight of Lucic punching an unsuspecting Freddy Meyer in the temple was the last thing either club wanted to see on Dec. 23. (For what it’s worth, the hit from Meyer was one of the instances in which Ference took matters into his own hands, as he got a roughing minor on the play, while Lucic got a match penalty). Lucic also punched Victor Hedman in the face late in Game 1 of the conference finals at the end of a play, which escalated things unnecessarily in a lost game that only had nine seconds remaining. It’s those little temptations that Lucic needs to avoid when he eventually wears an 'A' on his jersey. Assuming he stays in Boston long, it’s a safe bet that he’ll eventually wear a letter, even if he doesn’t get it this year.
WHO SHOULD GET IT: Ference
To use two clichés in one sentence, the Bruins can’t completely replace Recchi, but they really can’t go wrong with either of these guys. The idea of Lucic losing his cool with a dangerous play every once in a blue moon while wearing an 'A' isn’t the most appetizing thought, which makes him the first to be crossed off the list. Thornton will always be a leader of any team on which he plays, and the fact that he’s never needed a letter to do it speaks volumes to the character of Oshawa native.
Ultimately, a coin could be flipped between Thornton and Ference. While the distinction would be a great way to follow what will likely be the best season of Thornton’s career (10 goals, 10 assists), Ference brings the complete package and epitomizes the Bruins in a way for which he may not always receive credit. He’ll get the slight edge here, though don’t be surprised if Lucic ends up getting it.