i was six years old when bobby orr came to the bruins as a rookie, and i knew all about it because my father had once explained to me that the incredibly poised and gracious gentleman in the top hat and tails at my kindergarten graduation was none other than johnny peirson, all-star bruins winger and father to one of my classmates. (johnny would within a few years join don earle in the television broadcast booth, in time for bobby orr's stanley cup greatness, as well as don's memorable "he hit the post--he hit the fucking post" broadcast lapse that packed him off to philadelphia in favor of the master who was and is fred cusick, and for fred today i am most nostalgic--he would have loved to see the cup raised again). it was four seemed-long-then but oh-so-short-now seasons before the love and faith of a boy were rewarded, and to this day my favorite number is always four, and my favorite position on any field, court or rink is defense.
despite the incredible run of celtics championships taking place at the time, and what we all know is the deep and abiding love for the boston red sox that courses through the veins of this town and always has, in the 1960's boston was a hockey town first before all, and foremost. "jesus scores, but esposito scores on the rebound" festooned more bumpers than all the other stickers combined, and the excitement building towards the stanley cup run in 1970 was like nothing i could describe to anyone who wasn't there. the rights to bruins telecasts had been purchased by a UHF station, WSBK TV-38, and the recent availability of HD had and has nothing on the impact of this move on the sale of new TV's in and around the city of boston. (most sets in those days were VHF-only, and new ones were not cheap). it had been 29 years since the last cup on causeway street, and people were feeling it was time for the drought to be over. every game that season was a slow and deliberate step on a march toward coronation.
the season was punctuated not only by orr's ascendance, (120 points by a defenseman was beyond unheard of), but also by the supremely entertaining coincidence of detroit hanging themselves good and over after clinching their playoff spot, and hardly bothering to resist the ny rangers scoring 9 goals in their last game, putting the rangers 4 goals ahead of montreal for the tiebreaker, but in need of a canadien loss to make the playoffs. enter the chicago blackhawks and their star goaltender, tony esposito, (brother to bruin great phil), who then proceeded to roll up to a 5-2 lead by the middle of the third period, thus inducing montreal coach claude ruel to play the last ten minutes of the game with an empty net. (into which chicago poured five more goals, to the delight of every hockey fan on the planet not from montreal). habs fans are still crying "fix", but nobody in boston minded not having to face the habs on the way to destiny, via new york. (the first minute and a half of boston's first game in ny took an hour and a half to complete, setting a record for penalty minutes and forever endearing derek sanderson to bruins fans everywhere as the target of ranger ire--which reminds me to point out that brad marchand and derek sanderson have a lot in common, and that's the highest compliment to be paid brad you could name).
the finals by then were an anti-climax. (think red sox vs the cardinals in '04 times a million). boston was an "original six" city, and fiercely proud of it. the blues were the perennial expansion team enjoying their annual free pass into lord stanley's dance, (the way they built the divisions, even philadelphia was situated in the "west", and expansion clubs only had to face an original six contender in the finals), and this was st louis' third try at winning a single stanley cup game, let alone a series. boston swept them, of course, and put the exclamation point on the necessity for the league to reorganize and mix the clubs for the next season, so that the weaker would be forced to get stronger. (ironically at boston's expense, and have i told you how much i abhor kate smith?) it was all so obvious to everyone who followed the game--of course bobby orr would do it--and it was no less sweet for knowing it would happen. magic. we had the best team and the best player, and the stars aligned as they should and must.
so, you know, as i've said before, they really ought to call this game "goalie", and it is in this distinction that the greatest difference between '70 and '72 and today exists. 1971's bruins were even better than the '70 version who had already run away with their first cup, but they encountered a rookie goaltender by the name of ken dryden who contributed the greatest goaltending performance in stanley cup history right up until the one we just saw this year. you'll never see it in ken's 3.00 goals-against-average for that year, but to have seen the talent arrayed against him, and the number of incredible saves he was forced to make to save the season for his team, is to never doubt. it was his "worst" playoff average in his stellar career, but it was the best i have ever seen, until today. just incredible. (but bobby and the boys got the cup back in '72, so it was never an enduring disappointment).
so, fast forward to the early days of 2006, and the random good fortune to have been given bruins tickets on the first starting night of tim thomas' renewed tenure with his first and only nhl club, well into his 30's in age, and supposedly well past the prime of any reasonable goaltending prospect. tim had entered in relief of andy raycroft in the two previous games, but he was essentially an unknown, and appearing only because hannu toivonen was out, and raycroft obviously wasn't right, either, and needed to be rested. the season was a bust to that point anyway, (the bruins had won only 15 or 16 wins out of their first 40 games), so what did the team have to lose?
i remember vividly the style, or complete lack thereof, displayed by thomas while backstopping an inferior team against a clearly superior opponent. (dallas had won 30 games out of their first 40 at that point, and i was under no illusions as to why that particular game had been the one whose tickets were donated to me). time after time the dallas stars had glittering chance to put the game away, but time after time this unknown full-grown-man of a goalie refused to give up on the puck, and stopped them. the shootout didn't go boston's way, but they earned a point from a single goal, and, that season, thomas ended up only losing 13 games in regulation out of 35 starts, for a team that was, to be charitable, terrible.
the rest, as they say, is now history. this year thomas set the nhl goaltending record for save percentage over the course of a season, at .938. thomas bettered that in the playoffs with .940, and then blew it away in the stanley cup finals with an astounding .967. (not for nothing, but he compiled his best-ever percentage against more shots than any other goaltender has ever faced through the playoffs). looking back, the bruins do indeed again have the best player and the best team, but you couldn't have known that even a few short weeks ago. these were lunchpail guys without any standout star--no tom brady, no big papi, and no larry bird--and winning only as a team. subtract tim thomas and you have a first-round exit and a fired GM and coach. add tim thomas, and you have the beginning of something special. (brad marchand is the only free agent needed to be signed, and the whole team, other than mark recchi, who is retiring, is back).
so what, in the end, is the difference? the difference is knowing how hard it is to do what these men have done. the bobby orr aura is replaced by something more tangible, and a 50 year old man knows better than a 9 year old boy that these things truly do not come around all that often.
boston bruins, stanley cup champions.