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2010 could be the Year of the Bear

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 31, 2009 11:51 AM

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The Patriots are preparing for a possible Super Bowl run, the Red Sox just lost their leading home-run hitter from last season, the Celtics just concluded a disastrous road trip that saw the Big Three reduced to the healthy one (Ray Allen), and the biggest buzz on the Boston sports scene is being generated by ... the Bruins.

With apologies to the inimitable Kevin Paul Dupont, Boston is really a Hub of Hockey with the New Year's Day (weather permitting) staging/skating of the Winter Classic -- or as Bruins coach Claude Julien facetiously referred to it last night "the famous outdoor game"  -- at Fenway Park, where the infield is now an ice sheet.

It seems like a good omen that the Bruins are in line to be the first of the major Boston sports teams to play in the new decade. This decade they were the hockey have-nots of the aughts, Boston sports' forgotten fourth line rolled out behind the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics. That's what happens when you win a single playoff series while your sports brethren combine for six championships.

Granted, the Celtics didn't exactly cover themselves in green glory before the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but they did advance to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002.

The Bruins, who have the current longest championship drought in Boston pro sports, last winning the Stanley Cup in 1972, start 2010 front and center at Fenway, and they have their Winter Classic date with the Philadelphia Flyers to thank. The NHL still deserves some ridicule for having its games on a remote cable outpost (Versus) that used to be known as the Outdoor Life Network, but it has breathed new life into the game by bringing it outside.

The Winter Classic, now in its third year, has been an Instant Classic. Having the Bruins face-off against the Flyers at Fenway has generated more curiosity from the casual sports fan than when the NHL All-Star game was at the Garden (then FleetCenter) in 1996.

That's what this game is all about for the NHL and the Bruins, capturing the casual fan and hanging on to them after the Fenway rink and its publicity have melted away.

Puck purists love the idea of the Winter Classic because it returns the game to its rustic roots. It's pond hockey, NHL-style. But those fans would watch or attend the game whether it was being played at Fenway, the Garden or the Frog Pond at Boston Common.

The true appeal of the Winter Classic and the hubbub it generates for the Bruins is that fans who normally wouldn't watch or attend an NHL hockey game or abandoned the sport at some point are fascinated by the unique nature of the event. Last year's, Winter Classic at Wrigley Field between the Blackhawks and Red Wings drew a 2.5 rating on NBC, the highest for an NHL regular-season game in 13 years.

There will be people tuning into this game or attending it whose familiarity with a left winger starts with Nancy Pelosi and not Marco Sturm. The players understand that.

"It's something that showcases our game, not just because of the venue or the event, but more so because of the coverage and the publicity that we get," said Bruins right wing Blake Wheeler, who hails from the American hockey hotbed of Minnesota, where every lake, pond or stream is a hockey rink in waiting.

"It's great for our game to be front and center for a couple of hours and showcase the skill and talent that it takes to play our game. Hopefully, it's a really fun game to watch for the fans, so it really draws in the average viewer and really sways them from being a casual fan to a good fan of the game."

Left wing Steve Begin, who played in the Heritage Classic, an outdoor game between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens in 2003 that served as the precursor to the Winter Classic, said that he can feel the excitement in the city.

"Everybody gets excited about it, the media, the fans, everybody. I think everybody is more excited than us," said Begin, one of three Bruins, along with Michael Ryder (Heritage Classic) and Daniel Paille (inaugural Winter Classic) to play in an outdoor NHL game.

"That's been the talk around the city for the last month. It's all good about hockey. Everybody wants to come to that game, everybody wants to watch that game, so it's fun."

This game and the exposure it brings couldn't come at a better time for the Bruins, who have recovered from a slow start to get back on track. The Bruins are ready for their close-up.

The Winter Classic will be Boston's 40th game of the season and in between their .500 start in the first 20 games (8-8-4) and the Green Monster game they've gone 12-4-3. The spoked-B's currently sit five points behind Buffalo for first place in the Northeast Division.

The Bruins already looked like they were playing pond hockey with the effortless way they created scoring chances in a 4-0 thrashing of the Atlanta Thrashers last night.

Top center Marc Savard, who missed time with a broken foot, is rounding back into form, and Sturm has rediscovered his knack for the net with four goals in his last five games, giving him 13 on the season, one fewer than former teammate Phil Kessel, now with the Maple Leafs.

Center Patrice Bergeron, who was named to the Canadian Olympic hockey team yesterday, a feat akin to making the US men's Olympic basketball team, looks fully recovered from the aftermath of the devastating, career-threatening concussion he suffered at the hands of former Flyer Randy Jones two seasons ago.

Already blessed with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in goaltender Tim Thomas, Finnish phenom Tuukka Rask is leading the NHL in goals against at 1.85, after recording his second shutout of the season against the Thrashers.

Maybe, starting with the Winter Classic, 2010 will prove to be the year of the bear. 
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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