No one who was there will ever forget that night. Just two days after the darkest moment in Boston history and with two alleged criminals still on the loose, the city tried its best to work on returning to normal.
One of the first steps in that process came April 17, 2013, at TD Garden, over 48 hours after two bombs ripped through Boylston Street at the Boston Marathon finish line. The Bruins’ Marathon Monday game against the Ottawa Senators was postponed, and they returned to work Wednesday night at the Garden. They did so under surreal circumstances.
Just getting into the building that night was an experience like no other. Bomb-sniffing dogs walked the premises, as did U.S. soldiers. Metal detectors were everywhere. Unsettling doesn’t even begin to describe it, especially so soon after the horrific events on Marathon Monday.
While fear and uncertainty might have been some of the predominant feelings for fans on the way into the building, things changed as soon as the crowd began to fill the seats. The Garden became not only a place to be distracted by hockey for a few hours. It became a place to come together and feel something other than sorrow.
All together, it made for one of the most unforgettable nights with one of the most unforgettable moments in Boston sports history.
The Bruins didn’t find out until just a couple of hours before that Monday’s game — the day of the bombing — that they wouldn’t play that night. Coincidentally, the next game on the schedule was Wednesday at home against the Buffalo Sabres. With the suspected bombers on the loose, the show would go on, and the Bruins hoped to do a small part in taking the region’s mind off the tragedy, even if for just a few hours.
“The one thing that I sense from our team is that we have the ability to maybe help people heal and find some reason to smile again, by giving them that, by representing our city properly. To me, this is a time where you are proud to be associated with a professional team, even the NHL and all professional sports. When you look at the support this city has had from rivals and everything else, that are giving us support at this time, it’s amazing. We have an opportunity here to make our city proud. I think we’re all in for it, and hopefully we can do that for this city right now.”
– Bruins coach Claude Julien
The Bruins were willing to accept that pressure — they wanted to put the city on their backs that night. They weren’t alone in that task. Bruins anthem singer Rene Rancourt is a showman by trade, but even he struggled with the idea of going out and performing what was sure to be an emotional song that night.
“As I was getting ready, warming up my voice during the day — because it’s not that easy a song to do – I found myself breaking up and tearing up while I was practicing. I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know if I can get through this thing.’ “
– Bruins anthem singer Rene Rancourt
“(There were) people out (that morning) but also still very quiet. It’s funny, I got to the corner here (outside the Garden) and that’s when it really hit me and it’s a different feeling. At the same time, you’re battling with the feeling and also what you want to accomplish. You’re battling with you’re inner strength to not let that get the best of you, but give it your best so that you can help the people around.”
Fans began to trickle into the arena earlier than usual. The biggest reason was to ensure enough time to go through the heightened security measures. Another reason might have been simply because it beat hanging around the house and doing nothing but watching TV coverage of the ongoing bombing investigation.
Upon entering the arena, fans saw blue and yellow everywhere. Those colors weren’t representing the visiting Sabres, though. The blue-and-yellow remembrance ribbons were splashed all over the arena, as were pleas to donate to The One Fund, established to raise money for the bombing victims and their families.
“It was actually the first time (in the dressing room before the game) that we didn’t have music going, we were actually watching the news most of the time. It’s tough to see that, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families.”
– Sabres forward Cody Hodgson
The teams eventually took the ice for pregame warmups. The Bruins had been taking the ice to a Kanye West song in recent games. When they stepped on the ice for the first time that night, though, the Dropkick Murphys song “State of Massachusetts” blared over the Garden speakers.
Once the Bruins and Sabres finished their pregame skates, a yellow light fell over the arena and remained on until the teams took the ice again. In the interim, uplifting songs replaced the usual pregame music mix. Finally, the teams took the ice for the game. Before the puck dropped, though, there was a pregame ceremony that started with a stirring video tribute.
“It was incredible. To see how everyone was reacting and watching that video was obviously very emotional for everyone. You really see why Boston is such a special city. How everyone has come together and really united through all this, and tonight is another example of it. You’re around thousands of people you don’t know, but it’s like we’re all one.”
– Bruins forward Brad Marchand
“And the video right before we had to play was pretty emotional, pretty raw and I can’t imagine what everyone is going through here.”
– Sabres goalie Ryan Miller
After the touching video tribute, it was time for Rancourt to come out and do what he had done thousands of times before: sing the national anthem. Flanked by the Boston Fire Department color guard — and without the usual accompaniment of Garden organist Ron Poster — Rancourt started to sing the first few words of the anthem.
That’s when a special moment became an unforgettable moment. Without much encouragement, the Garden crowd took over and started singing the song.
“It’s the Bruins office that had the idea. We all talked about it and how we were going to do it: the moment of silence and showing a video and coming on with the firefighters, color guard. We worked it out. It was their idea. I was very nervous. I didn’t know how — what if you stop singing and nothing happens? It went more than well. I’m just so proud for having been part of it.”
“Tough to keep a dry eye after the memorial on the big screen. To hear the crowd singing like that is pretty special. It was great to see the support by the 18,000 or whatever here. It was definitely a different experience but great to see everyone rallying around each other which doesn’t surprise you in this city.”
– Bruins forward Shawn Thornton
“It’s pretty awesome hearing everybody sing like that, and obviously emotions were pretty high. We all knew tonight was more than just another game. It meant to a lot of people as another step, and we’re just on the ice trying to have some remembrance from the last couple of days and also just move on as well to getting back to business in the city. It was tough. It was really tough. I think in the first shift everybody was choked up. I can’t remember being that emotional on the ice except for the last few seconds before we won the Cup. I think it’s about equal as far as emotions.”
– Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference
As soon as an emotional anthem wrapped up, the crowd burst into “USA” chants. Those chants quickly gave way to “Let’s go Boston” in place of the usual cries of “Let’s go Bruins.” That was a familiar chorus heard throughout the night.
“We’re not surprised. They’re a pretty awesome crowd of people. I think no different than us, they knew it was a step for the city to get back to some sporting events. I think in that instance they’re not really cheering for us, they’re cheering for your city and I think for themselves as much as anything.”
There certainly were bursts of emotion as the game went on. The Garden crowd erupted with joy when Daniel Paille scored the first goal in the opening period. However, a Bruins win wasn’t meant to be that night. The Sabres came from behind and triumphed in overtime. The 65 minutes of hockey and the ensuing shootout won’t be what’s remembered, though.
The game came to an unfortunate end for the Bruins, but any sort of disappointment after the game was short-lived. The Bruins spilled onto the ice, where they raised their sticks as a salute to the fans and the city. The B’s were joined by the Sabres in an impressive display of sportsmanship and solidarity. The fans showed their appreciation with a rousing standing ovation in culmination of an important night in the city’s attempt to heal.
“(Bruins captain Zdeno Chara) talked to us. I’m not sure if he talked to them before the game, but I assumed we would have been doing that anyways. I didn’t know they were, but I assumed that we were going to be doing it anyways.”
“Buffalo staying out there and us staying out there, we just wanted to show our respect and give thanks to our fans. I know it’s a tough time right now, we know that. For them to come out and support us, to take their minds off everything for a couple of hours and come in tonight, we just wanted to say thanks. We’re thinking of everyone, and they’re in our thoughts and prayers.”
The tributes were far from done, both at the Garden and around the city. Slowly but surely, Boston started to return to something resembling normal. That process started that night, and it’s only fitting that in a city like Boston, it started with sports as the backdrop.
All Bruins/Sabres quotes are from April 17, 2013 pregame or postgame media access. Rene Rancourt quotes are from an April 18 WEEI interview.