Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
On a June morning so idyllic that an observer might casually acknowledge it as a great day for a parade even had one not already been scheduled, thousands upon thousands of joyous Boston Bruins fans lined the route from TD Garden to Copley Square to revel with the newly crowned Stanley Cup champions.
The swarm of black and gold arrived early, its anticipatory buzz serving as the city's soundtrack well before the duck boats, Boston's official transportation of champions, fired up their engines. After 39 years of waiting to celebrate their team as the NHL's finest, what was another few hours, right?
"I'll tell you, the fans have been amazing since we stepped off that plane back from Vancouver," said forward Chris Kelly, who came to Boston in a deadline deal with Ottawa and has often marveled about his good fortune since. "They have been so nice to us, and we want to give that back to them. This is something you dream about, but until it happens, you don't know how great it really is."
Kelly was among a handful of Bruins to speak with the media at TD Garden this morning before boarding the duck boats for the "rolling rally," which has become the traditional epilogue to a championship season over the past decade. Boston police were expecting a million people to attend. It looked and sounded like a million did.
New England sports fans have been blessed with so many reasons to celebrate since February 2002, when the Patriots started a remarkable run of seven major professional sports championships in 10 years. But there has been a palpable catharsis, an additional communal feeling of joy, that has accompanied the Bruins' seven-game victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the Cup Final that ended Wednesday.
Part of it is the long wait -- the Bruins had reached just two Cup finals (1988 and '90), winning one game total, since the beloved Big, Bad Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito took the prize in 1972. Part of it is the sport itself -- Boston is and always has been a hockey community, even if the passion has occassionally fallen dormant some winters. And part of it is that so many of those who play for the Bruins make a conscious and genuine effort to reciprocate the fans' appreciation, an attitude increasingly scarce in professional sports nowadays.
"I sound like a broken record, but . . . it's my first Cup, and I'm sure it's great to win anywhere," said defenseman Andrew Ference. "But to win in a city like this, when legitimately the fans are as excited as the players are, that's pretty special. You always knew it would be. People would always tell you, 'this is a hockey town, you guys have got to do it,' and it kind of made us pull our weight.
"We played the underdog role toward the end a little bit, but the whole year, and with the last couple of seasons, how they went, there were expectations to perform and get the job done. So this is really satisfying, to live up to our expectations and to live up to the expectations of our fans and the city."
Mark Recchi played 22 seasons in the NHL, winning championships with three different teams. His value to the Bruins was not just on the ice, where the 43-year-old contributed five goals and nine assists this postseason while playing with Game 7 stars Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand on the dynamic second line. The Bruins leaned on him for his veteran seen-it-all wisdom, and so there is extra credibility attached to his words on what it meant to play in Boston.
"For the chance to be able to do this, for us to do it after 39 years and give Boston fans a chance to see the Cup, it couldn't be any better," said Recchi, a surefire Hall of Famer who announced his retirement after Game 7. "When you come in as a visitor, you enjoy the city, but when you are fortunate enough to live and play here, that's when you really understand how great it is. It's a unique bond."
When asked if this is his favorite of his three championships, Recchi passed on the chance to rank his hockey children.
"They're all special in different ways, but regardless of what would have happened in Game 7, this was one of the best groups I've ever played with," Recchi said. "There's not a bad guy in the room."
Shawn Thornton was the only Bruin other than Recchi to have won a Cup before Wednesday, having played for the 2007 champion Anaheim Ducks. The affable fourth-line enforcer, whose insertion into the lineup after Game 2 proved pivotal, said the celebration in Anaheim was fun, though "it was about a 2-minute drive in a parking lot." This, he said, is something else.
"[When we won in Anaheim], we had it on the beach in Newport and there were like 20 people looking at it," said Thornton. "It was like it was a rec league trophy. Nobody knew the difference. Having helicopters hovering above us at Tia's [a North End bar/restaurant where some Bruins brought the Cup Thursday] was a little different."
The victory delivered redemption for the Bruins' recent postseason failings, including last year's second-round loss to Flyers in which the Bruins had a 3-0 lead in the series and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 before succumbing. Ference said the lessons learned from that disaster proved valuable this postseason in keeping the Bruins focused.
"Even up until the last minute in Vancouver, when [Brad Marchand] scored the empty-netter, the guys kind of cheered and then sat back down because we were so trained not to let any thoughts seep in that there was actually a shot of winning. You just kind of hammer in, hammer in to stay focused and stay the course. I think at about 30 seconds left we lost it. There were a lot of lessons learned about not slipping up and being consistent."
But even after those 30 seconds had at last ticked away and the Bruins celebrated on the ice, in the locker room, and beyond, what they had accomplished didn't become clear, at least to Ference, until they were in the sky en route to Boston.
"I think the plane trip was when it finally started to sink in, when Cam was running up and down the aisle with the Cup."
That, of course, would be Cam Neely, the beloved star of the 1988 and '90 teams that lost in the Finals. As the current team president, he was one of the architects of this team that accomplished what the ones he played for could not. As much as anyone involved with this championship, he comprehends what it means to Boston.
"I came here at 21, and grew up here, and I have a huge passion for the organization in general and respect for people who were here before me," Neely said this morning. "The fanbase has always shown its passion for the players, and so to be able to finally win one has been an extraordinary experience. It's funny, it kind of hit me yesterday when I was driving in. You drive in and it seems like a normal day, but it keeps running through your head that you're a Stanley Cup champion."
It's a feeling the Bruins savored sharing with the city.
"On the way to the parade, guys [on the team] are just coming out and walking over with the fans [from the North End]," said Ference. "My family, we just walked beside all the people in their jerseys, and I said this is a perfect microcosm of our team. There's just something about our team. That's our style. The players just step out of the house and walk over with all their neighbors to the parade. The difference is, we get to get on the duck boats."