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A good sign for the times

If you are still a hockey fan, especially if you are still a Bruins fan, it sure has been a lonely 16 or so months around the office water cooler. Once was the time we all talked hockey. We lived it, breathed it, ate it, slept it, wore it as a badge of regional, if not tribal, pride.

Back long ago, our town had Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Gerry Cheevers. Everyone else, well, they were living hockey on another planet, where nuisance items such as gravity and time influenced what their players could or could not do. Causeway Street in those days was stage to nightly miracles, and what happened in the Garden by no means stayed just in the Garden.

The Bruins kicked rear end, took numbers, won a couple of Stanley Cups, and otherwise set the sports agenda, and to a large degree, framed every discussion at the water cooler. The last year-plus, any Bruins fan trying to lead the office discussion on sports has been one lonely soul (note: estimate of one soul may include just a touch of hyperbole).

If ever a sport, and if ever a team, needed some good news to come skating down the lane, it was Bruins hockey. And it finally showed up yesterday when Joe Thornton agreed to a hefty new contract that will pay him $20 million over the next three years. Already rich, he became an even richer young man, agreeing to a deal that will pay him just a few prime sirloins and Lexuses fewer than the three-year, $21 million deal inked just days ago by Jarome Iginla -- the Calgary star who still owns the richest new deal in the game's dawning salary cap era.

Good for Jumbo Joe that he came to terms. He has yet to attain true superstar status in the NHL, and we can discuss forever and a day whether that's a Thornton issue, a surrounding-talent issue, or anything else we want to toss in from the expert's tattered bar stool. He is, though, without question, an excellent player, a true A-list player, and now he will bank A-plus money.

Had Thornton opted not to take the dough, or sign his qualifying offer of about $1.5 million less, he was destined not to start the new season in a Bruins uniform. He would have been dealt. Take that to the bank, just as Thornton will take that new contract. A lame-duck season for Thornton would have held the franchise hostage, which, by the way, in part explains why Boston's offer the last three weeks went from $5 million a year to $6.667 million a year. He got all that cash because he held all the cards.

The new CBA gave Thornton all the leverage in the talks, and it took less than a week of NHL free agency to make that perfectly clear to everybody. Iginla got his $7 million, Chris Pronger a little less, and Markus Naslund even a little less. It took about a minute's worth of fun with numbers to slot Thornton in with that lot -- which is what Mike O'Connell did -- and then sit back to find out if he wanted to earn that money in Boston or somewhere else. That's just another piece of the reality of the new NHL -- the money can go only so high (a max of $7.8 million a year), and the best veteran players pretty much get to pick the town that will pay them that money.

In this case, Thornton chose Boston. That is a very good thing, for him, for the franchise, and especially for the aforementioned water cooler hangers-on who have been aching for something like this to happen to their sport, to their team, to their pride.

Imagine if Joe said no. Yeow. Not pretty.

Again, a little history: When Orr booked to the Black Hawks as a free agent, the season-ticket fallout was, to be kind, catastrophic. The guarantee of nightly full houses on Causeway Street turned into a totally decimated waiting list, and a Garden that housed echoes instead of heroes. The franchise rebounded, and with some real oomph at times. But nearly three decades later, the brand, the franchise that Orr left, has never been what it was in the early '70s.

Now, had Thornton also booked, the impact would not have been a fraction of Orr's defection, simply because there is virtually no hype remaining to deflate. But it would have hurt, especially at the box office, and even more so in the overall psyche of the Boston hockey fan. Thirty-two years is a long time to wait for a Stanley Cup, especially when the end to those good times carries the permanent asterisk of Orr's hasty adieu.

Thornton is by no means the best thing ever to come crashing down Causeway, but he's the best, most identifiable player the team has. There is a good chance he will hold that title come the summer of 2008, when his new deal expires. He is the Bruins' Paul Pierce, highly talented but frustratingly imperfect, still short on delivering all the goods. But all the fans know, or care, is that he is the face of the team they love, the team they hold on to, at a time when the holding on has become excruciatingly painful.

NHL fans, league-wide, had to suffer through a season lost to a lockout. Locally, Bruins fans had to endure the lockout, along with the stripping down of the Boston roster to be cap-friendly, the possible 2006 defections of Thornton and fellow Black-and-Goldust twin Sergei Samsonov (still unresolved, long term), and last week's UFA signing period that produced, in the eyes of most Bruins fans, a lot more hamburger helper than hamburger (likes of Brian Leetch, Alexei Zhamnov, and Dave Scatchard).

Yesterday, finally, the right thing happened. Thornton is on the books, will be in uniform when training camp opens in less than a month, and the franchise truly has a true center -- in the definition of both position and metaphor.

Now, back to the water coolers, Bruins fans. No more hiding out with the white-out, steno pads, and three-ring binders in the supply room while everyone chats up Red Sox and Patriots. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Exhale. Breath. Enjoy. Drain that Poland Springs jug dry. Good to be home again, isn't it?

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