My father had three things left on his Sports Bucket List: seeing a Stanley Cup finals game in Boston, going to the Masters, and going to the Kentucky Derby. After last night, we're two away from him creating a new list or me putting a pillow over his face. I flew home so we could attend Game 4 of the Bruins-Canucks series together. It was the least I could do after he brought me to about 4,500 Celtics games over the years.
The Canucks were favored in the finals because of stars such as Ryan Kesler (who broke out for Team USA in the 2010 Olympics), Alex Burrows (we'll get to him), and the creepy Sedin twins (created in a lab by some evil Swedish scientist who loved hockey). They also have snazzy blue uniforms that look like the old Whalers duds once upon a time (to their credit, they didn't steal "Brass Bonanza"), and their fans are so devoted enough that after Game 2's game-winning overtime goal by Burrows, they were still standing and cheering in their seats a full 10 minutes later. Their Achilles' heel: They nearly choked away a 3-0 lead to Chicago in Round 1 because goalie Roberto Luongo briefly unhinged midway through the series, which means he could do it again.
If you haven't been following the series, it took exactly one game for Bruins fans to work up a Canadiens-level hatred for the Canucks. This was surprising because Vancouver isn't Tampa Bay, Columbus, or any of those other microwavable insta-Bettman hockey cities that any Original Six fan base instinctively hates.
For four decades, Canucks fans suffered and suffered and suffered. Only twice did they make the finals, the last time in 1994, when they became anonymous foils for Messier's Rangers. Everyone remembers that series because the Rangers shed 54 years of baggage and won the Cup, and also because that may have been the last time anyone other than hockey fans liked hockey. It's easy to forget that the Canucks staved off elimination in Game 5, flew cross-country to stay alive in Game 6, and then — right after their fans had let their guard down and decided to believe — fell short in Game 7. They never came that close again.
I assumed Bruins fans and Canucks fans would be bonded by their histories of heartbreak (a little like the Cardinals and Red Sox in 2004, actually). That hasn't happened. And it hasn't happened because the Canucks revealed themselves to be flopping wusses who (a) bite the fingers of opposing players, (b) use a 15th-string defenseman to knock the other team's best forward unconscious when he's not looking, then dedicate the next game to that defenseman as if nothing ever happened, and (c) don't back any of this crap up. If this were a movie, the Bruins would be Will Hunting and the Canucks would be the condescending ponytailed guy from Harvard who won't go outside1.
For a city weaned on the Big Bad Bruins of the 1970s, Vancouver's flopping/biting routine went over about as well as a Roger Clemens statue2. A few hours before Game 3 on Monday, my father was sitting in a Beacon Hill Starbucks when five couples walked in, all wearing Canucks jerseys, and ordered some drinks. A Boston local stood up, walked over to one of the guys and calmly stuck his fingers in the man's face. With the implication being, "Why don't you bite my fingers, isn't that what you guys do?" Only he didn't actually say anything. He just stood there waving his fingers in the guy's face. And by the way, he was outnumbered five-to-one.
Nothing ended up happening — the Canucks fan laughed it off — but that gives you an idea of the bitterness spawned by Games 1 and 2, thanks to Vancouver's two soul-crushing game-winners (18 seconds left in regulation, then 11 seconds into OT), and also because Alexandre Burrows bit Patrice Bergeron's finger in Game 1, didn't get suspended, then became Game 2's hero. At gunpoint, I don't know what makes Boston fans hate Burrows more: that he bit Bergeron, that he didn't get suspended, or that his name is "Alexandre." What pushed it over the top: Burrows is good. Usually playoff villains take the form of Carolina's Scott Walker (who sucker-punched a Bruin two years ago) or Pittsburgh's Ulf Samuelsson (who crippled Cam Neely in the '91 playoffs), role players who overstep their boundaries and make you say, "Who the hell does that guy think he is?" But Burrows' biting Bergeron, then scoring a ridiculously creative goal to win Game 2? That deserved a waterboarding.
Those first two games played out like a generic version of every traumatic Bruins playoff series from the past 35 years: The Canucks were faster and slightly more talented, and both games ended abruptly in the most brutal way possible. (Welcome to my childhood.) Momentum shifted in Game 3 when Aaron Rome coldcocked Nathan Horton in the open ice — exactly the type of blindside hit that hockey has been trying to eliminate in the Concussions Are Bad era — then Horton spent the next few minutes lying on his back, motionless, as the crowd stared in horror3. After they carried him off, three things happened: the Bruins were fired up, the Canucks became tentative, and the fans ratcheted up the intensity to Boston Tea Party levels. The highlight of the ensuing 8-1 shellacking: Looch (a.k.a, Milan Lucic) making a belated run at Burrows, belting him around a little, then shoving his fingers in Burrows' face as they were being separated. You're not going to believe this, but the crowd thoroughly enjoyed it.
By all accounts, Canucks fans weren't treated well as they left the arena. Sauced-up Boston fans were shoving them, throwing things at them and challenging them to fights. A friend of mine who roots for Vancouver wore his jersey to Game 3, despite my warnings, and saw his life flash before his eyes about 20 times as he looked for a cab. Things were so ugly that it prompted a Boston Globe editorial urging Boston fans to act with more class, an impossibility after we learned Horton would miss the rest of the playoffs. In the stands during Game 4, the hostility toward the Canucks and their fans was fairly suffocating. One fan behind me was swearing like a sailor at every Canuck, even using an obscenity that I hadn't heard at a sporting event in years. Because there was a little boy sitting behind us, I braced for the boy's dad to say something to the guy then I realized that the boy's dad was the guy. And he wanted the blood of the Vancouver Canucks.
Quick tangent: It's a weird time for sports right now because, once upon a time, going into an opposing arena or stadium while wearing your team's colors was the ultimate sign of fan support. It meant you "risked" your life to support your guys although, really, you just ended up getting heckled and that's it.4 That's the way it should work. You go into the lion's den, support your team, take the ensuing heat (mostly good-natured) and that's where it ends. But once the secondary ticket market (StubHub, eBay, etc.) made it easier for out-of-towners to get tickets, the odds increased for something truly terrible to happen: like that poor Giants fan getting beaten into a coma outside Dodger Stadium recently. I don't know what to make of the "let's make miserable the rogue outsider who dared to wear opposing colors in our house" dynamic now, or know why an opposing fan would take that chance (especially in hockey), or know what the boundaries are for making that fan miserable. It's all in flux.
Anyway, we managed to avoid anything spectacularly inappropriate on Monday and Wednesday. Barely. Game 4 turned into a Bruins romp by the end of the second period. My father and I were lucky enough to have seats on the glass; we noticed quickly that the Bruins were skating around with their proverbial chests puffed out, convinced they had gained control of the series, physically. (Which they had.) The best moment happened near the end, when Burrows kept tipping the stick of popular Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and Thomas went medieval on his ass, then smiled afterward to the enduring delight of the crowd. That's my favorite thing about hockey, and one of many reasons why it's made a sneaky comeback since its devastating lockout: Unlike basketball (where the refs carry too much sway), hockey players police one another.5
Hockey fits in better these days in general. I had lost interest in the Bruins in the mid-'90s because of their unlikable skinflint of an owner, Jeremy Jacobs, who lives in Buffalo (I mean, really?) and always spent enough money to compete but never quite enough to win. But looking back, I'm realizing that it wasn't Jacobs as much as me turning on the product itself: I grew up watching potbellied, heavy-footed, toothless bald guys like Wayne Cashman coexisting with occasionally brilliant offensive players like Bobby Orr or Rick Middleton. There was always the right balance: You had your muckers, your fighters, your scorers, your playmakers, your two guys on each team who skated faster than everyone else, your token European thrown together, everything just worked. Then the Euros and Russians flooded the league, along with the helmets and face shields, and suddenly there were no more potbellied bald guys, and they started cracking down on the chippiness, and the Devils trap ruined the flow of the game, and there were suddenly 10 new teams in cities that never should have had a team, and wait a second, what the hell was I watching? I just couldn't adjust.
They created a hard salary cap after the 2005 lockout that kept ticket prices down and helped the Bruins (suddenly Jacobs wasn't a factor); so did a few smart rule changes, widescreen HD televisions (the games look splendific, which isn't even a word), and the sport's unannounced return to the days when men were men. In basketball, you can't look at someone cross-eyed without getting a technical. In football, you can't touch the quarterback or the receivers anymore. In baseball, you can't throw at anyone even after they've just taken 20 seconds to complete a home run trot. Hockey swung the other way: It will never endorse something as sleazy as Rome's hit on Horton, but Thomas' getting pissed off because Burrows kept being a dick and hitting Thomas' stick? Absolutely. Do your thing, Tim Thomas. Cross check him in the head, get your two-minute minor, make your point.
Of course, real hockey fans stuck with the sport through the toughest times; they don't want someone like me returning as if nothing ever happened, like some adulterous husband who moved out for a few years, waited until his wife dropped 20 pounds and got implants, then suddenly decided he wanted to win her back. Every time I tweet about hockey or mention it in a column, I'll get a few insults about being a bandwagon fan. When some people online noticed me in the background of this picture taken right after Rich Peverley's first goal, I got crushed by a few blogs for being a front-runner.
Technically, they're right: I loved hockey until I was 24. From 1995 to 2007, I didn't care about hockey unless the Bruins made the playoffs, and even then, I didn't really care. The 2008 playoffs sucked me back a little, then the 2009 and 2010 playoffs made a little more ground. This year, two young Boston forwards (Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand6) swayed me toward regular-season hockey for the first time in forever. I found myself watching more playoff hockey this spring than just the Bruins; honestly, I found Canucks-Hawks, Red Wings-Sharks, and Canucks-Sharks to be equally entertaining.7 Isn't roping someone like me back in a good thing for hockey? Do you know how rare it is for a product to lose a consumer, then get him or her to come back? Usually with these things, once you're gone, you're gone. And if hockey keeps building its audience, maybe every finals game would appear on network TV, and maybe we wouldn't have any more situations like the three times this spring when I couldn't watch a playoff game because my hotel didn't carry Versus.
Look, I totally get the Cult of the Status Quo, which afflicts MMA fans, hockey fans, and American soccer fans, in particular — they all have a chip on their shoulder because they're still in that "we're all rooting for a local music band and we don't want it to go mainstream" stage, so they unabashedly drive away anyone late to the party. (It's the reason Springsteen die-hards loathe the "Born in the U.S.A" album — from that point on, Springsteen belonged to everybody, not just them.) Here's my counter: What was more fun than the 1994 NHL Playoffs? Remember that? The spring after Jordan split to play baseball and before the Devils ruined all momentum with their stupid trap, when Sports Illustrated had that cover wondering if hockey was passing basketball, when the Rangers played two straight epic seven-game series against Jersey and Vancouver that everyone watched? Don't we want to get back to THAT point? How can that happen if you don't have enough fans?
From what I can tell, hockey solved every pressing issue except for one: It still needs more Canadian teams. Winnipeg was a good start; I hope Quebec and a second Toronto team are next. Call me crazy, but I think we want as many teams as possible in the country that cares about hockey the most. Just seems like a logical plan. My dream scenario: two of the WTFDTCHAHT's move to Quebec and Toronto,8 giving us 10 Canadian teams (I'm including Buffalo, our only bisexual North American city — it can go either way). Throw in Minnesota and Detroit (right on the Canadian border) and a Seattle team (let's build an NBA/NHL arena there already), and suddenly we're looking at an entire conference that I'd tentatively call "The Top Half Of North America Conference" (I know, it needs some work).
Regardless, I can't believe Gary Bettman actually pulled off a little momentum here; it's like imagining life if Fredo had beaten the odds and figured out the casino business. I was done with hockey. I was finished. But the sports brought me back for all the right reasons. Sure, I can't (and won't) take nearly as much satisfaction that the Bruins are two wins away from the Stanley Cup as the die-hards who stuck with them through thick and thin — fans like my father, a true fan for 40 years who never turned his back on them even in the darkest times, unlike his front-running son. The last time the Bruins won the Cup, my father was going to law school and bartending every night. He missed the whole thing. He's been watching ever since. He never gave up on hockey, not even right before and right after the lockout. That's why I flew back to take him to the game. It was 40 years overdue.
Now he needs two more Bruins wins. Like always, it's probably coming down to the goalies, a great sign for Boston since Luongo just gave up two more goals while I was typing this paragraph. Before Vancouver pulled him in Game 4, the Boston crowd was derisively singing, "Loooooo-on-goooooooooooo. Loooooo-on-goooooooooooo. Loooooo-on-goooooooooooo." Is that sound still ringing through his head? Are Vancouver fans freaked out that their greatest fear — Luongo melting down like a volcano — might actually be happening? Will Ryan Kesler throw the Canucks on his back again like he did against Nashville? Will Milan Lucic keep playing out of his mind like he did in Game 4? Will the Sedin twins introduce a new flop that we've never seen before? Will the Canucks finally bite back instead of letting themselves get pushed around? Er, fight back? And why does it feel like this has to end with a seventh game? I wish it was best of 13.
One last thing: I was lucky enough to attend Game 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, then Game 4 of the NHL finals, within a span of 75 hours. If you remember, Games 3 and 4 in Dallas were pretty freaking compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed them, loved the atmosphere, loved the drama, everything. Even feel like I may have witnessed a little history on Tuesday with LeBrondown II. But you know what? The hockey game was a slightly better live sporting event, and I would have said that whether the Bruins were involved or not. It flowed a little better. It makes you feel like every second matters. Every time someone scored, you felt like the roof was caving in. Even when there's a blowout, you have to keep watching because you never know when one team wants to send a message to the other.
And yet, my favorite part happened before the game, when the fans respectfully waited out "O Canada," then belted out the "Star Spangled Banner" at the top of their lungs: partly to prove a patriotic point, partly because we were so happy to be there, and partly because it was the Stanley Cup finals and that's what you do. I had goose bumps on my goose bumps. What a moment. So thank you, hockey. I might be a front-runner who ditched you once upon a time, and I know you probably won't let me move back in. Just know that you've never looked better, and if you'd always looked this way, I never would have left.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33 and check out his new home on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/billsimmons.