The score sheet says the highest number on the Boston Bruins is 68, Jaromir Jagr.
But not quite.
Meet John Singleton Copley, No. 617.
It is not known what position Mr. Copley might have played, or even if he could skate, but it is known that he proudly stands – a statue to Colonial America’s greatest painter – just to the left of the moving makeshift memorial that has grown in Copley Square in the weeks since the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and injured another 264.
Someone has dressed John Copley in a Boston Bruins jersey, the local area code, 617, on the back and, where his name might otherwise be, the two words, “Boston Strong,” that in the aftermath of the attack came to mean standing up to any and all adversity.
The connection is fairly made. A Bruins game against the Ottawa Senators was cancelled that day. They held powerful moments of silence at matches that followed at TD Garden, the arena becoming a bit of a rallying point for a city in grief. Before the Bruins’ playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, victim Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the carnage, triumphantly carried the flag out on his wheelchair for the opening ceremonies.
Fans grew playoff beards to help raise money for One Fund, the victim relief program that this week topped $51-million (all currency U.S.) in monies raised from various events.
“It’s beyond our imagination,” Mayor Thomas Menino said when the total was announced.
But so, too, is the senseless tragedy, which is why this makeshift memorial just keeps growing.
A team jersey on an artist might seem silly, but it is entirely in keeping with this city where sport has long been a major part of the culture, a brief escape from the realities of everyday life that is also very much its own reality.
Boston fans – the Irish, the Italian, displaying the “lunch-bucket” work ethic so preached by Don Cherry, who once coached the “Big, Bad Bruins” – are true fanatics when it comes to their Bruins (hockey), Red Sox (baseball), Celtics (basketball) and New England Patriots (football).
It is, after all, a city that can claim championships in all four of the major North American sports this century. The Boston Marathon, always held on Patriots’ Day, dates from 1897 and is the world’s oldest annual marathon race.
When play obviously means so much to a people, you mess with it at your peril.
The “Memory Fence” alongside the statue to John Copley has become an organic memorial of running shoes, teddy bears, messages, notes, good luck charms and, not surprisingly, sports references to the various local teams. There are even a number of Boston Bruins caps, one donated by “Martin” noticeable in that he has taken a black marker, scratched out the “11” in 2011, the last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and replaced it with “2013.”
Now leading their best-of-seven final series against the Chicago Blackhawks two games to one, with Game 4 being played Wednesday night, the Bruins are but two wins away from a Stanley Cup parade, one that both players and ordinary citizens say would bring some welcome smiles back to streets that have been in mourning now for more than two months.
“You never want to put a sports championship equal to what this city has gone through,” Bruins defenceman Matt Bartkowski told a television outlet last week. “But I think to be able to bring some happiness and joy would mean a huge deal right now.”
“A lot of people suffered,” added team captain Zdeno Chara. “We were there.”
In Mr. Chara’s opinion, this city has so long been behind the Bruins, endlessly supportive of its beloved hockey team, that it would be appropriate if now the team might, in their own small way, “give back the cheers and joy.”
The city will never go all the way back. The Boston Marathon bombing – two homemade devices that exploded just down the street from this memorial – has now entered the American psyche. The front page of Tuesday’s USA Today even tied it and 9/11 to Gettysburg, which is about to mark the 150th anniversary of the famous Civil War battle.
On a day when thunder threatened and rain delivered, crowds moved ceaselessly along the fences, stopping to read, take photographs, think. The quiet is as noticeable as the hanging running shoes.
Charlotte Miczek and Laurel Kilmain are working through the rain, pinning a new quilt from a retirement residence to the fence, each square a special message of hope and love.
“The residents all felt so helpless,” Ms. Miczek says. “They wanted to do something but couldn’t decide what. So they decided to make this quilt.”
Robert Ragucci has lost count of the number of times he has passed by the memorial and stopped to see what might be new. The retired elementary school teacher was here that day, having walked the 10 miles in from his home in nearby Everett in the hopes of seeing the winners cross the finish line. He was here long enough to see the men’s champion, the women’s and the wheelchair, but, it being a hot day, he decided to walk ahead to Cambridge and along the Charles River, where it would be cooler. He was there when he heard the sirens.
This wet day, he has come wearing a brand-new Boston Bruins cap. He loves sports and he loves what sport – what Orwell derisively called “war minus the shooting” – can do for the human spirit.
“You would not believe what the Boston Red Sox did for this place in 1967,” he says.
The local baseball team had been terrible. The United States was in turmoil over everything from race relations to the War in Vietnam – but along came Carl Yastrzemski and that magical summer in which the Red Sox, miraculously, made it to the World Series.
“That brought all of New England together,” he remembers. “It was a wonderful, wonderful time to be in Boston.”
Hockey is helping the healing, Mr. Ragucci believes. The Bruins and Blackhawks are Original Six teams and for old-timers like him – he’s 61 – the series harkens back to a time when Bobby Orr was flying through the air after scoring a winning goal in the Stanley Cup final.
But it’s just a game, he is reminded. What is it about a simple game that can help a wounded city, where injuries were fatal rather than “day-to-day”?
He pauses for the longest time. … “It shows us,” he said finally, “how we can work together to overcome … adversity.”
Boston Strong, forever.