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Mara is back on home ice

10 years after skating away, he's finally a Bruin

If anyone knows what it means to be a Bostonian, it's Paul Mara.

On summer days, the Bruins defenseman knows the best hour to avoid Route 3 traffic en route to Cape Cod.

Mara, owner of third base seats at Fenway Park, knows what it's like to be a Red Sox fan, professing his amazement at Julian Tavarez's recent complete game and wondering who'll be the closer in 2007.

He knows how boys who grow up in Belmont and star at Belmont Hill have birthrights to a scholarship at Boston College, Boston University, or Harvard.

He knows that even more so now. Between the ages of 17 and 26, Mara had left his hometown behind. Now he knows that saying goodbye makes home that much sweeter.

In 1999, Mara was a 20-year-old Tampa Bay rookie who happened to be on the wrong side of Chris Simon's temper. During an early-season game between the Lightning and the Washington Capitals, Simon hit Mara with a blow that busted the rookie's jaw.

``First shot," said Mara, whose dentist removed his wisdom teeth while repairing his injury.

Mara has always been the young pup running with the big dogs. When he was 6, Mara started attending workouts with Paul Vincent, the local power skating coach. As a 14-year-old, Mara rode the bus from his family's summer Cape home to train with BU strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle.

Just after Mara turned 17, he made a life-changing choice. On a Friday in September 1996, Mara left Belmont Hill and signed with the OHL's Sudbury Wolves, the Canadian club that held his major junior rights. That day, he told his classmates he was leaving. He turned in a paper, the last he'd write as an American prep schooler.

Four days later, Mara was on a Boston-to-Toronto flight, one of the few New Englanders to forgo college hockey for major junior. Once he touched down in Toronto, he faced a four-hour drive to Sudbury, one of the OHL's two northernmost towns (Sault Ste. Marie being the other). He was to live with the parents of general manager Todd Lalonde, formerly Bruins property.

``I still remember that flight as if it were yesterday," said Mara. ``It was hard. It was definitely hard on my parents and my family."

Sudbury welcomed Mara as the red-white-and-blue savior, a Yankee good enough to shun the college game and play junior hockey, one of the pillars of Canada's rich hockey history.

But the Wolves finished sixth in the division the year before, and the 1996-97 team wasn't much better. They kept losing. The locals, like the banshees at Mara's beloved Fenway Park often do, found a target.

The American.

``They thought I was going to come in there and bring them to the playoffs," said Mara. ``Things didn't work out. After a while, the fans took it out on me. That was another bad experience, getting booed by 4,000 Canadians. That's the thing, even at that age. They just wanted a winner."

For Mara, who'd play two seasons of junior in Sudbury and two more for the Plymouth (Mich.) Whalers, high expectations would be nothing new.

Lightning's round
Bruins followers need no introduction to the Class of 1997, whose valedictorian was wheeled out of town to San Jose last year en route to winning NHL MVP honors.

Aside from No. 1 pick Joe Thornton, the draft's first round included another franchise center (Patrick Marleau), a world-class goalie (Roberto Luongo), and a top-line sniper (Marian Hossa).

It also had its share of who-are-theys, such as forward Stefan Cherneski (New York Rangers), goalie Jean-Francois Damphous (New Jersey Devils), and defenseman Kevin Grimes (Colorado Avalanche), who are no longer in the NHL.

At No. 7, the Lightning picked Mara. But on March 5, 2001, they traded Mara (14 goals and 22 assists in 101 games with the Lightning) to the Phoenix Coyotes in a package that brought back goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who would backstop the Bolts to a Stanley Cup three years later.

In Phoenix, Mara developed into a top-four defenseman, improving his point totals each season. In 2001-02, the slick-skating Mara had 7 goals and 17 assists in 75 games. The following year, he recorded 10 goals and 15 assists. Mara scored 42 points in 2003-04, then had his finest offensive season last year when he netted 15 goals (eight on the power play) and dished out 32 helpers in 78 games.

But Mara also was saddled with a minus-12 rating, worse than any of the leaky defenders on the 2005-06 Bruins (Brian Leetch had a club-worst minus-10).

For Mara, 2005-06 was a year of adjustment in the Year of Offense. No more yanking in an attacker who had blown your doors off in the neutral zone. No more bear-hugging a forward camped in the slot. No more depending on teammates to hold off forecheckers barreling into a corner to knock you into the glass.

``Before, it always seemed to be physical, physical, physical," said Bruins coach Dave Lewis. ``You could use your leg or arm to lock a guy against the wall. In today's game, you can't do that. It's an adjustment for all the guys."

The last-place Coyotes, seeking some snarl for their blue line, targeted Nick Boynton, who had grown disillusioned with the Bruins. On June 26, 2006, Mara was traded for the second time, returning to Boston in exchange for Boynton, who had been picked two spots after him in the 1997 draft by Washington.

``There's a reason why he went as high as he did in the draft," said assistant general manager Jeff Gorton, who was interim GM when the Bruins traded for Mara. ``He's a 6-4 defenseman who can skate, shoot, and play defense. In our opinion, he's underrated defensively. Over the last few years, he's become more and more competitive and figured out how to play defense.

``He was traded for Khabibulin, so he was ultimately traded for the piece that helped Tampa win the Stanley Cup. You've got to give to get, and he was part of that. That's why he was moved to Phoenix. We gave up a pretty good defenseman -- a top-four defenseman -- to get him. It's not like people have been giving him away."

Time to peak
Despite the talent in the 1997 draft, many teams haven't displayed patience with their picks. Luongo has been dealt twice. Sergei Samsonov, the No. 8 pick, is with his third team. Only Marleau, defenseman Scott Hannan (San Jose), and forward Brenden Morrow (Dallas Stars) are with their original clubs.

Mara, now with his third organization, is looking for a new start. The 6-4, 219-pound defenseman is one of Boston's top three defensemen along with Zdeno Chara and Brad Stuart. During the preseason, Mara, who scored last Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens, saw power-play time at the left point, joining the offense as a backdoor option at the left post.

``There's definitely more ice to move around in and maneuver in," Mara said of the new NHL. ``But I'm still going to continue to play my game, jumping up when I have the opportunity, but still knowing that someone could be back behind you."

The Bruins lost some toughness and leadership when they let Boynton go. But he lacked the transition skills -- retrieving the puck, turning, and snapping an outlet pass or breaking out on his own -- that Mara has and that the Bruins desperately need.

``At his age, he's in the prime of his career," said Gorton. ``Defensemen always mature a little bit later. It's a tougher position to play. They come on at an older age. That's probably why it's taken him a little longer."

Mara is an addition welcomed by Bruins management -- almost as much as he is by his father, mother, brother, and sister, who all still live in Greater Boston. When he was with Phoenix, his parents watched via satellite, getting bleary-eyed with 1:30 a.m. finishes.

Father Bob, back to being a Bruins fan after rooting for the Coyotes, understands what being a Boston diehard is all about. He saw it in the Orr Era. He nearly saw the Bruins win the Cup during the sweet spots of Ray Bourque's and Cam Neely's careers. Now, with the signing of Chara and the arrivals of Lewis and GM Peter Chiarelli, he sees the possibility of a revival.

``There's nothing better than having a successful Boston Bruins team," Bob Mara said. ``It adds more spark to the environment here."

This Saturday, Paul Mara will play his first game at the TD Banknorth Garden as a Bruin when the club concludes its exhibition season. His family has already purchased season tickets. He'll have friends watching throughout the season.

``At some point in my career, I definitely wanted to play here," Mara said. ``I thought I might sign here sometime. I never imagined I'd get traded here. Now that I have, it's just awesome. It's a dream come true, coming home and playing for Boston.

``I think that's why everyone's excited around here. They know this is a sports town. If you produce a winner, it's going to be an awesome time."

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