“As the police search for suspects, much of the city is in lockdown, mostly around the Cambridge area. We are all at home in JP [Jamaica Plain] and staying put. We are all OK.”
The e-mail arrived at 6:12 a.m., April 19. It was from our daughter.
I love Boston. I’ve loved it since the first time I was there, playing in a Christmas hockey tournament for Cornell in the old Boston Arena where the Bruins had played before the Boston Garden was built. We played fewer than 30 games a year in those college seasons, yet about 10 of them were in Boston, against Boston University, Boston College, Harvard and Northeastern, regular games, tournaments, and every year in the ECAC’s final four at the Garden.
Boston, a great college city, was also a great college hockey city. The arenas were always full of screaming fans; the Boston Herald Traveller, and even The Boston Globe, covered our games as if we mattered. It was like that in no other NHL city.
Between games, I’d wander Boston’s streets, to no place in particular, just to feel their oldness, until always ending up at Filene’s. Wing-tip shoes for $5, button-down, no-iron shirts for $2, with some flaw I never noticed or looked for – Filene’s Basement was a college student’s best friend.
After graduating, I was accepted to law school in Boston; I arranged to play with the Framingham Pics of the New England Senior League. If I hadn’t decided to come home to play with the Canadian National Team, I might still be there.
Then, two years later, I was back in Boston to play my first Stanley Cup playoff game. The Bruins were the best team of the time. They had won the Cup the year before, and had the NHL’s two best players, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. But more than that, they had this spirit. They cruised the ice as if they were looking for trouble, pushing you, testing you, willing to take a punch to give one. They were “the big, bad Bruins” and they looked like they were having the time of their life.
Their successors a few years later, Philadelphia’s “Broad Street Bullies,” were desperate and grim. The Bruins were fun. The Garden was their perfect home. Grimy, its features as if rearranged by too many brawls itself, it had been built first with boxing in mind, with steep-banked seats and balconies, the fans hanging over the action like gamblers at a cock fight, making themselves part of the action themselves.
Those fans loved their team. Not just Orr and Esposito, but tough guys willing to take on anybody and anything any time – (Terrible) Teddy Green, Johnny (Pie) McKenzie, Wayne Cashman, Johnny Bucyk. Even goalie Gerry Cheevers played as if he was aching to break free from his crease to join the fight. Derek Sanderson, with the attitude and style of NFL star Joe Namath, everything but the talent, would have been too pretty for Bruins fans, except he was tough too.
To the rest of the NHL, the Bruins had enough skill to make their toughness work. To Bruins fans, they had enough toughness that their skill – “who do you think you are?” – didn’t seem too fancy.
The Boston Celtics, with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and coach Red Auerbach, had won 11 NBA championships in 13 years between 1957 and 1969, but the Celtics weren’t Boston. Basketball was too soft – (in best Boston accent) “they call that a foul?!” – the team was too good.
The Boston Patriots had started up only a few years earlier in the American Football League and were about to move to a new stadium in Foxborough and become the New England Patriots (“Foxborough! New England!”).
The Boston Red Sox were another story. They had been baseball’s best team, winning three World Series in four years from 1915 to 1918, until their owner sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees to finance his New York Broadway shows. To Boston fans, this was horrible, unfair, and real life. The Red Sox didn’t win again that century.
But unlike their National League counterparts, the Chicago Cubs, they never became lovable losers. (“What’s lovable about losin’?”). They weren’t losers; they just didn’t win. Year after year. They’d fight that bully (Yankees) in the back alley and they’d keep fighting him even if, with cuts over their eyes but smiles on their faces, they got the worst of it every time. The Red Sox were Boston but, without the same scrappy good humour, for the most part, its players weren’t.
Not like the Bruins and the Bruins players in the early 1970s. They were Boston. And miracle of miracles, they won, too! In the history of Boston sports, there may have been no team that more embodied the city.
One more Boston fan story: In 1995, the Bruins moved from Boston Garden to a new arena. It was called Shawmut Center, until just before the building opened Shawmut Bank was taken over by Fleet Bank and the new arena became Fleet Center. A few years ago, the naming rights changed again, this time first to TD Banknorth Garden, and now TD Garden.
Recently, a visitor to Boston was taking a bus tour of the city. The guide, in full Boston accent, was pointing out the landmarks – the Quincy Market, Old North Church, the Common – when passing a nondescript stretch of storefronts, he shouted into his microphone, “And there’s TD Bank, the greatest bank in the world!”
When the tour was over, the man asked the guide why he had highlighted a simple bank branch; and why TD was the greatest bank in the world. The guide replied, “Because they gave us our Gah-den back.”
I thought about those Bruins, about Boston Garden and those fans during the recent man hunt as TV images showed the hard-working neighbourhoods of Boston. And last weekend, with one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers dead and the other caught, I thought about them again when a tweet began circulating: “They messed with the wrong city.”