So I'm sitting behind Mike and Dan Gradzewicz up in the balcony of whatever the FleetCenter is called these days. The Bruins are playing Toronto, and we all wonder why anyone would pay $95 for a seat near the ice. Somehow, the subject of soccer comes up. Both look like they've just sucked a lemon.
''You've got to get hurt," says Dan, a 22-year-old student at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who skated for Methuen High, dismissing munchkins who kick a ball while their mothers sip bottled water on the sidelines.
Dan and his older brother, Mike, 31, are hard-core Bruins fans. They live hockey. (Dan informs me apropos of nothing that Craig MacTavish was the last pro in the NHL to play without a helmet.) They split season tickets with two other guys. Drive from Methuen and leave their car at the T in Medford because parking's so absurd around the Garden.
(About the TD Banknorth Garden: Now that the elevated Green Line tracks are down, people on Causeway Street can see the structure for what it is: a big, bald wall of pale concrete so ugly that its architect should do hard time at Cedar Junction.)
These are scary days for the Bruins, who labor feverishly to hold fans like this pair and attract new ones after the league's suicidally dumb non-season last year. The effort is a Catch-22, because changes to seduce the new risk alienating the old. So what's the answer?
''More fights and more scoring," intones Dan in a refreshing burst of political incorrectness.
We live in a soft and shiny age when fighting is no longer the marquee attraction it once was. Fisticuffs, by all accounts, are way down this year, and the referees are calling more penalties for holding and hooking. Fine. But let's be clear here: Fighting is bad for the game not because it offends the squeamish but because it's boring. Just go to a Beanpot game to see great hockey played without the inanities.
The lone fight of the night broke out a mere 2:15 into Thursday's game. Three refs stood around watching the slugfest as if they were observing a guy repair a window sash. The crowd rose in a deep, primitive roar, reminding me again that hockey fans really are direct descendants of a missing link in Africa's Rift Valley.
Anyway, we're talking about the ad campaign on the Garden monitor that features ''What's old is new again" and ''The Bruins are the drumbeat of a tribe that's Boston" and ''Not the glitz but the grit." The question is, absent a Stanley Cup, whether the Bruins make it in Boston in an era of Super Bowl and World Series rings.
The answer entails another question: Which Boston? The Boston of Bobby Orr, when every kid seemed to have skated on black pond ice in the late afternoon until he lost all feeling in his hands and feet? The Boston when the Red Sox and Patriots were horrible and there was no Tom Brady or Johnny Damon to dominate the sports pages? When the parochial symbiosis of Irish and Brahmin still held sway and dining options ranged from the Ritz to Locke-Ober?
Or what's called The New Boston, where South Asians and South Americans contribute to an ethnic mix inconceivable in 1972, the last time the Bruins won the cup. That would be two years before busing began here, two years before Mike Gradzewicz was even born.
In The New Boston, the Bruins are a tough sell. Their only hope for salvation is to win, over and over and over, into the playoffs. Victories are their traction against the Sox and Pats. (Forget the Celtics. They're even further in the weeds.) Walk around Boston these days and listen for Bruins chatter. You won't hear any. They are simply not part of the vocabulary of this town in 2005.
Part of the problem is the absence of a star. In this critical early period of the season -- Thursday's game was only the fourth at home since the season began on Oct. 5 -- a hero would help. The Bruins have none. Joe Thornton is a sputtering candle next to the klieg lights of Brady and Manny. They say Patrice Bergeron will be huge. Maybe.
It would help if the Bruins were good, but they're not. After a sketchy 2-1 win over Toronto, their record was 1-5-1 in their division. In plain English, they'd won one and lost five, but the crazy new scoring system awards points for new overtime ties. (Hence the final 1.) There's now a five-minute, four-man overtime followed by a shoot-out from the red line until someone wins.
These are gimmicks, pure and simple, by a desperate league. Hockey is a team sport, and teams should win or lose a game. So play sudden death as a team after a regulation tie. Period. That said, other changes loosening rules around passing and offsides have created a faster, more open game to everyone's delight. At its essence, hockey is an unmatched blend of speed and violence.
The Bruins are invisible to most Bostonians today. They play a retro sport that I happen to love, but the throaty cheers of fans who came out in robust fashion Thursday will not suffice in the long run.
The Bruins were the first US team in the NHL. Boston has rich hockey DNA. Again, the question is, which Boston?
Sam Allis's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.