Like I’ve admitted here before, I’m new to this business of being all wrapped up in the Bruins. Or to put it more accurately, I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of Bostonians who followed the Bruins closely but eventually jumped ship.
But now, for the time being at least, I’m back on board. Like Billy Zane in “Titanic,” I’ve bribed a couple of crewmen, pushed a few women and children out of the way and shamelessly grabbed a seat on the Bruins bandwagon.
And as a newcomer here, I’m trying my best to be respectful and get familiar with the Bruins culture I haven’t been a part of in so many years. Even though I’ve lived among Bruins diehard puckheads my whole life, I confess I haven’t really paid much attention to them, mainly because I didn’t have to. They had their hockey and we had an unprecedented run of success in all the other sports. And so, even though they lived among us, I no more had to learn to speak Hockey Talk than I needed to learn how to communicate with Boston’s Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking population.
But now, it’s different. I’m on Bruins fans’ turf. I’m a visitor in their land. So simple decency says I do the right thing and try to assimilate into their culture. Of course, I can’t get fluent in Hockey Talk in a matter of weeks, so I have to do the best I can. I think of it as being like that time I went to Mexico with a buddy of mine and knew I couldn’t learn the language overnight. So I memorized the one phrase I thought would most likely come in handy: “Si me libre, usted puede mantener a mi amigo y lo usa del mismo modo que un burro.” Translation: “If you release me, you may keep my friend and use him as you would use a donkey.”
To that end, for the first time in years, I’ve been actually listening to what Bruins diehards say instead of rolling my eyes and making that “yap, yap, yap” hand-puppet gesture behind their backs. Which, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been doing since probably the Cam Neely days, even though I honestly and sincerely think they’re the best and most loyal fans in the city. And I feel bad about that.
But I’m not doing it any more. I’ve been taking the sports fans equivalent of the Rosetta Stone crash course because for the rest of this Stanley Cup ride, I want to be able to comprehend just what in the name of Orr they’re talking about. And after weeks of total immersion into their language and culture, here’s the one key fact I’ve learned about your (hopefully soon-to-be, not trying to jinx anything) Eastern Conference champions:
Claude Julien is the worst head coach in all of professional sports.
That’s not my opinion. Being new around these parts, I don’t have an opinion. But that’s what I hear the masses say. And based on the hundreds of hours I’ve logged talking with them and listening to them converse in their native tongue, all Bruins fans speak with one voice on the topic: Julien is terrible.
Like everyone else, I saw Saturday’s Game 4 against Tampa Bay when the Bruins, up three goals, watched the lead evaporate like Zamboni steam. Personally, I watched the goings-on with the untrained eye of a guy who’s spent the last 10 years trying to comprehend the Patriots’ two-gap fronts. So to me, it looked like some Bruins players got careless with the puck and coughed it up in their own end, and Tampa Bay took advantage of it. Seemed simple enough. Guys got sloppy and made mistakes and it cost them.
But as usual, I’m dead wrong. Because according to everything I’ve heard since, the fault was all Julien’s. Based on the approximately 10,000 calls into WEEI this week that I’ve carefully recorded, categorized and logged, the problem wasn’t boneheaded giveaways in the mouth of the goal. It was the fact that Claude didn’t call timeout.
That’s it. A simple 'T' motion with Julien’s hands after the first goal … or the second or the third, depending on who’s talking … and the Bs’ problems would’ve been over. One timeout call. One trip to the bench by the whole team so Claude could remind them they need to take care of the puck and skate hard or whatever would’ve completely killed the Lightning's momentum, neutralized their attack, and the Bruins would be already in the Cup finals. Amazing.
I guess I just never realized that an NHL coach held so much power in his hands. That a mere timeout could be wielded with the awesome might of Mjolnir to render an opponent harmless like that, especially considering the Tampa offensive explosion came right on the heels of that other timeout, the 15-minute one between the first and second period. But real hockey fans have spoken. Julien blew it. And for the rest of us, it’s not our place to argue.
Another (apparently) major blunder by Julien … again, according to the natives … is the fact that he’s stuck with one goalie. Now, without doing the homework since I’m too lazy and apathetic and it would cut into my drinking-scotch-while-watching-the-“Glee”-finale time, I was under the impression that Tim Thomas was the best goaltender in the NHL this year. He’s certainly going to win the Vezina Trophy. And not only got us this far, but made saves throughout the Montreal and Philly series that made Jack Edwards show us his “O-face.”
But again, the hardcore Bruins public doesn’t want to hear it. I’ve listened to dozens — scores — of seemingly knowledgeable Hockey Krishnas insist that Julien should’ve pulled him from the game. From some game. At some point. I’m not exactly sure when. But according to one Big Show caller Monday, the perfect time to bench Thomas was in the second period Saturday. After the first goal. Because he was obviously tired and the B's had lost all the momentum and you could clearly see they needed a change. All of which was the kind of subtle, nuanced X’s and O’s a hockey illiterate like me missed. What with Thomas having gone the previous four periods without giving up a goal and all. But people who claim to know such things say a better coach than Julien would’ve made the switch before it was too late, so it’s all his fault. And if I want to fit in with the rest of them and sound really smart, I should go along, right?
Um, wrong. Look, I don’t comprehend pro hockey enough to know if Julien is a great coach or not. But I do know that he’s managed to bring a Bruins team that by all accounts was an unfinished, unsettled, mostly dysfunctional, and definitely work-in-progress Bruins team further than it's been since the Bush Administration. The George H.W. Bush Administration. It seems to me that the screw-ups in the playoffs have largely been the fault of the guys with the puck on their sticks, not the middle-aged bald guy chewing gum behind the bench. Does that settle the issue? No. There’s still plenty of legitimate questions about playing time and the inexcusably gawdawful power play. But it’s earned him a little benefit of the doubt.
And what I don’t understand about hockey I like to think I make up for in understanding the Boston sports fan. There is a huge segment of the population that believes if you’re not second-guessing the coach, you’re not enjoying yourself. And that goes for every sport. And the vast majority of guys who think like that have 1-888-525-0850 saved to their contacts and aren’t afraid to use all their calling plan minutes to let the world know.
These are the guys who bitch about Terry Francona for not bunting with a runner on second in the sixth inning. Who insist that Bill Belichick doesn’t blitz enough because he’s “stubborn.” Or who bitch about Doc Rivers not playing Jeff Green enough in the playoffs or whatever. Because they’ve got this mindset that the quickest, surest way to prove what a superior intellect you are is to constantly question the moves of the coach. The issue of whether or not he’s making the right moves be damned.
And in a culture like that, what chance does poor, unaccomplished Claude Julien have? A friend of mine and I had this conversation Tuesday: He mentioned how for the first time in the history of Boston sports, we’ve got three of the four coaches who are respected, beloved, virtually uncriticizable icons. And then you’ve got Claude. This championshipless schlub who looks like Morn from “Deep Space Nine” and who coaches in the ultimate “hired to get fired” league. Putting him among their company right now is like tearing Jefferson down off Mount Rushmore and replacing him with William Henry Harrison.
But obviously there’s a simple solution for Julien: Win five more games and a Stanley Cup and he too will be untouchable. Then all the non-timeouts and his sticking-with-Thomas non-moves will be all part of a brilliant plan that worked flawlessly.
In the meantime, though, I’ll keep listening to the real hockey literates and see if I can make any more sense of this business of hammering away at the coach who has taken them further than any coach in most of their lifetimes. I just hope any doubts I have don’t get me kicked off the bandwagon. Or worse, deported.
You can follow/contact Jerry via Twitter @jerrythornton1.