Hockey is back, folks.
And here in Boston, let there be no doubt we have missed it.
More than eight months have passed since the Bruins skated off the ice following a 2-1 defeat to the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series, and the B's have barely been on our minds since. Tim Thomas withdrew to Colorado shortly after the season, and Bruins executives subsequently tied up loose ends with contract extensions for Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, and Tyler Seguin all before the league began its latest (un)civil war.
But within 8-10 days, the Bruins will be back on the ice. And their return should hit us all like a blast of 5-hour energy, particularly during a relatively barren winter sports season.
Take a good look around, sports followers. Short of the Patriots, there hasn't been much to get excited about. Even then, Patriots standards make the regular season schedule feel like a list of weekly house chores: do the dishes, put in the laundry, take out the trash. Then go out and wallop the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins, all with the intention of getting the best possible seed in the playoffs.
Since the start of September, really, that's pretty much been it. The Celtics have been an enormous disappointment, unlikeable and seemingly apathetic, at least until Friday night against Indiana. (Have they now remembered that defense is mandatory?) Meanwhile, the Red Sox have spent the large majority of their time erasing the mistakes of last winter, from Bobby Valentine to Mark Melancon to Andrew Bailey.
At the moment, we have no idea if the Red Sox are any good. What we suspect is that they will not be nearly as bad or as dysfunctional as they were a year ago, which is only the very first, small step on the road back to championship contention.
The Bruins, by contrast, would have (and will) come into the season with championship aspirations, something that should be true for years to come, even in the absence of Thomas. Prior to injuring his groin last season, Tuukka Rask had a 2.05 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Had the Bruins made it past the Capitals, Rask might have been ready to return for the second round of the playoffs.
Instead, the Bruins joined the rest of the league in hibernation, an absence that has extended for far, far too long.
Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs was a lead dog in the latest NHL war against the players, and maybe Jacobs feels like a bigger man now that the owners have won another seven percent. Whatever. But the most loyal Bruins fans have been stripped of at least some joy by their owner yet again, and this latest deprivation comes at a time when the Bruins should be thumping their chests at or near the top of the NHL mountain.
Think about it. More than any other team in town, the Bruins are built for the long haul. The Patriots have had an extraordinary run of success, but Tom Brady is 35. The Celtics are in the sixth year of a three-year plan. The Red Sox are rebuilding from the inside out, having failed to win even a single playoff game since 2008.
But the Bruins? The Bruins were the Stanley Cup champions in 2010-11, a wonderful blend of youth, experience, speed, toughness, skill and resolve. To some degree, we all gave them a pass on last season because they were still celebrating a championship. But coming into this year, the Bruins were again among the best teams in the NHL, further fortified by yet another coup from the glorious Phil Kessel trade - defenseman Dougie Hamilton.
And so what happened? The NHL ordered a lockout. The game stopped. The Bruins' owner was among those who ordered the players off the ice, even at a time when the Bruins project to be among the greatest forces on it.
Ugh. Talk about biting off your nose to spite your face. If the Red Sox got locked out, we might not care. But the Bruins?
The good news, of course, is that there will be a hockey season, albeit a shortened one, and that Bruins players ultimately suffered less than the fans who support them. Most fans don't give a darn about the winners or labor wars between owners and players - nor should they. We all understand the societal value and place of sports, and we know what they mean when it comes to emotional and psychological well-being of individual fans and the entire community.
So fine, the owners got more revenue, the players got longer term limits and the game will have some measure of labor peace for eight years. That last item is really the only one that fans should care about. During that span, the Bruins should be able to take the ice without interruption from their owner or anyone else, which is really all anybody wants.
Assuming no further glitches in the coming days - and that means the expected ratification of the new collective bargaining agreement by players and owners - hockey will return on either Jan. 15 or Jan. 19.
And then, finally, we can all turn our attention back to the ice, where we begin by asking the most obvious question.
Can the Bruins win another Stanley Cup?
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