On Friday night, the Bruins will try to finish off a sweep of the Flyers and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1992.
It's been an exciting ride. Yes, they still have to win this round to prove they are better than last year's team that blew a 3-0 lead to these same Flyers. Yes, we have learned not to count eggs — or hockey pucks — before they hatch. Yes, one injury (like the one to David Krejci last season) can turn a series upside down.
But there's something different about this team, isn't there? The Bruins already did something they haven't done in 17 years, winning a Game 7. And they did it against the hated, flopping, Montreal Canadiens.
That series made the Bruins more popular — more relevant — than they've been in years. Casual fans are paying attention, and mainstream media members are paying attention to the team more than ever.
Yet that media is still having trouble with the concept of hockey as a mainstream sport, even as New Englanders turn to the sport in record numbers.
WEEI's Michael Holley, one of the city's best sports talk show hosts, has done an occasional segment called the "hockey minute" for years now. The concept is simple: Cram in 60 seconds worth of hockey talk, because there won't be much talk about the sport after that. Admittedly, Holley (and all sports talk show hosts in town) are talking more hockey now. But that's far different than the regular season.
The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy, a columnist known well from coast to coast, wrote a piece on Game 7 against the Canadiens that appeared on the front page of the paper the next day.
"Let the Bruins and their fans enjoy last night for a few more hours," Shaughnessy wrote in the minutes after one of the most captivating games we've seen on the ice, or hardwood, or grass in quite a while.
As a hockey fan, it's always nice to see the sport covered on the front page of the paper. Yet there were three words in the piece that I couldn't stop thinking about.
And their fans.
The words carry an implication that Bruins fans are a group separated from the rest of Boston sports fans. They marginalize the sport and its fans.
Then, this Monday, Shaughnessy wrote a piece on the Celtics' Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs. The difference in how he views basketball fans couldn't be more clear.
"We don't know Pierce's explanation" began the fourth paragraph of the piece.
"We thought we were over this stuff with Pierce" were the first words of the sixth graph.
"We'll be debating the relative softness of these Heat" began yet another paragraph.
Each paragraph began with the same word. We. These weren't words written for the Celtics and their fans. It was a piece written for everyone. A piece written under the assumption that all fans reading the Globe sports section were fans of the Celtics, if not the NBA.
The earlier piece didn't make the same assumption about Bruins fans.
There's no question that hockey pales nationally in comparison to the popularity of football, baseball or basketball. ESPN doesn't carry NHL games and doesn't feature the sport prominently on SportsCenter.
But here in the so-called Hub of Hockey, where rinks dot the landscape and hundreds of thousands of parents drive their kids to youth hockey games from September to April, hockey matters. Around here, it's a mainstream sport. You don't have to go too far to find someone who played (or has a kid who played) the game.
And it's not just fathers and sons. Women's hockey has exploded in Massachusetts, with the amount of girls playing the game growing exponentially over the past few years. With these numbers, it's safe to say the sport has never been more popular in New England, with more kids playing it now than back in the days of the Big, Bad Bruins.
And now the Bruins are doing their part to bring the pro game back out of the lengthy shadows cast by Bobby Orr and his teammates in the early '70s. These playoff games are being watched by record numbers of people. The team is poised to get back for the conference finals for the first time in 21 years. Former B's like Cam Neely and Don Sweeney have taken key spots in the front office and are guiding the team in the right direction.
And people — not just "hockey guys" — are watching. On Thursday, the morning after the Game 7 win at the Garden, I had some work being done at the house. A contractor was talking to me about the game the night before. He said he didn't watch many games and still got confused by "that offsides thing" but thought it was great theater.
In other words, he wasn't a hockey fan. He was a casual sports fan caught up in the excitement of a deep playoff run by a local team. My guess is he was watching these second-round games against the Flyers, too.
There are more and more people watching. The bandwagon is growing, and there's room for everyone. If you're confused about "that offsides thing," I'd be happy to help. Just drop me a note.
One thing, though: If you're going to start watching these games, don't talk about the Bruins and their fans. Admit that we, the sports fans of Boston, are going to keep watching these Stanley Cup playoffs however long they last for the local team.
With football and basketball facing the potential of major work stoppages, folks will be looking for things to watch next winter. Make no mistake, the Bruins and their fans will be more than happy to have you along for the ride.
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