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Bob Ryan

Deep roots have kept us rooting

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 1, 2011

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The Old Guy was patient. The Old Guy knew you’d come around.

Yup, Old Man Hockey knew that deep down in your heart, lodged in the depth of your psyche, there resided a little round rubber disk, right next to that little white ball with the red stitches. Football and basketball have had their moments of glory during the past two decades, but Old Man Hockey knew that the two sports permanently embedded in the local DNA were baseball and, yes, hockey.

Old Man Hockey watched in sadness as other sports elbowed him to the side. But he had faith. He knew you just needed an excuse to reacquaint yourself with a sport that has extremely deep roots in these here parts.

And you have. There was only one dominant conversational topic in our town last Saturday morning.

“Did you see the game?’’

“Oh, what a game!’’

“Best game I’ve seen in years!’’

“Love that Tim Thomas!’’

“Can’t beat that playoff hockey!’’

Or variations thereof.

It has been 21 years since the Boston Bruins have even played for the Cup, and it has been 39 years since they actually won it. So much has changed, on and off the ice. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito are in their 60s. Even Ray Bourque has hit 50.

There was no music blaring in the Old Garden, and not much in the way of video, either. There was just John Kiley, bringing the Bruins out to “Paree’’ and rousing the crowd during languid moments with such tunes as “Mexican Hat Dance.’’

When Johnny “Chief’’ Bucyk skated around the Garden with Lord Stanley’s Cup held aloft following that 1970 triumph, there may have been six people sporting Bruins garb. Friday night, at least 75 percent of the 17,565 breaking every decibel record in the newer building were wearing something black and gold, none of it cheap. Being a fan now calls for a far more substantial financial commitment than it did in Ye Olden Days. And we’re not even talking about the price of tickets.

The teams are surely different. The last Bruins team to win a Stanley Cup was led by a pair of extraordinary all-time talents who played a far different game. Phil Esposito led the league with 133 points (which sounded good until Wayne Gretzky came along). The incomparable Bobby Orr augmented his annual Norris Trophy with 117 points. The Chief, who played the regular season at a spry 36, had 83. Six other Bruins had more than 50 points.

That kind of firepower doesn’t exist anymore, anywhere. Milan Lucic was this team’s only 30-goal scorer, sharing the team scoring lead at a rather modest 62 points with David Krejci. Patrice Bergeron had 57 points. Nathan Horton had 53. So much for 50-point men.

But these guys know how to D-up, as we say in basketball. The Bruins led the Eastern Conference in fewest goals allowed with 195, and that’s the way coach Claude Julien likes it. The 1-0 Game 7 conquest of Tampa Bay represented Julien hockey at its finest. The top-to-bottom attention to detail was extraordinary. There were no sloppy passes, no careless puckhandling, and no letdown in forechecking.

It was all backed up by Thomas, whose circuitous route to the 2011 Stanley Cup finals included watching the entire 2010 playoffs from the bench. Troubled by a hip injury that would require offseason surgery and facing competition from young Tuukka Rask, he did not play a second in the playoffs a year after winning the Vezina Trophy. Now he has been nominated for a second Vezina Trophy and he is heading to his first Stanley Cup finals. As Mr. Shaughnessy likes to say, you can’t make this stuff up.

The last Bruins team to win a Stanley Cup was easy enough to like, consisting, as it did, of so many A students. But this bunch is lovable more for its collective strength and its downright vulnerability than for its stars. These guys study hard, but most of them are lucky if they can come up with a B. Only when they pull together can they get a lot done.

Well, yes, there is a star aside from Thomas. It’s hard not to notice Zdeno Chara when he’s on the ice. The 6-foot-9-inch Slovakian plays about 7-4 when you throw in his skates and his stick, which enables him to execute poke checks when the play has emanated from Downtown Crossing. He won the 2009 Norris Trophy, and he has received his third nomination this season.

It is a team with little margin for error, and it has arrived in the Cup finals with a large stain on its résumé. Most teams love power plays. Some thrive on them. The Bruins would be better off if they could adopt a football policy and refuse penalties. They perform much better at even strength.

They set a record in the opening round against Montreal by winning in seven games despite scoring no power-play goals. They enter the finals having gone 5 for 61 (including a five-on-three goal) on the power play. They were fortunate indeed in last Friday night’s Game 7 with Tampa Bay: no penalties were called.

But Bruins fans have learned to love them despite their flaws because the game they are playing is hockey and certain elements remain constant, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Your father loved hockey, and so did his father, and maybe even his father.

Detroit fancies itself “Hockeytown’’? What a laugh. There is only one “Hockeytown’’ in America, one town where the NHL has been going on since 1924, one town where high school hockey has an eight-decade tradition, one town where you can stage an annual college hockey tournament featuring four high-quality teams located within a 2-mile radius.

The Bruins are right in the center of this hockey consciousness, and have been since the ’20s. The first great NHL superstar was Eddie Shore, and guess where he played all those years? We had the great “Kraut Line,’’ champs just before WWII, and, of course, we had the Big Bad Bruins. We had Ray Bourque and Cam Neely.

Granted, it has been a frustrating 21 years for Bruins devotees. There has been a lot of teasing, and little fulfillment, since the 1992 team advanced to the conference finals, only to be slapped around by the mighty Penguins. Only a year ago, the Bruins suffered the most humiliating series loss in NHL history.

But you knew there was something good going on when this team pulled off a 6-0 road trip from Feb. 17 through March 1. That told you this team had an inner resolve other recent Bruins teams lacked. They showed that resolve again after losing Games 1 and 2 at home to Montreal. And here they are, playing the game you and your forefathers have always loved with spunk and heart.

Old Man Hockey knew you’d come around. All you needed was a reason to care.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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