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BOSTON KNOWS: WHY EMBRACE A REGULAR SEASON WHEN IT MEANS NOTHING?
The Bruins are the NHL’s latest top-seed to crash in the playoffs, despite setting all-time records, and premier teams in all leagues should reconsider long views when they could expire in mere hours
The duck boats are lonely, stuck toting tourists from the aquarium. If Boston once was the epicenter of gluttonous sports glory, with a disgusting 12 major championships in the millennium’s first 18 years, the teams have provided no reason for a civic parade since Tom Brady and Bill Belichick — pre-breakup, pre-pandemic, pre-Gisele-midlife-crisis — last won four-plus years ago. So I propose a new, cathartic assignment.
Take the NHL Presidents’ Trophy and toss it in the dirty water of the River Charles, assuming the song lyrics still apply. The hardware has been rendered useless, once and for all, by the Bruins, who established league records for most victories (65) and points (135) in the regular season and were bounced from the playoffs days later. Pundits are calling it one of sport’s all-time upsets, this grotesque capitulation to the Florida Panthers, who play on the edge of the Everglades and have problems freezing ice and drawing fans.
But anyone who has watched hockey the last 10 years knows the result was just the norm. In that span, not one Presidents’ Trophy winner has advanced to even the Stanley Cup final. An onerous salary cap and a freewheeling wild-card format have created league parity and postseason unpredictability. All of which begs a consumer question: Why would anyone attend a hockey game between mid-October and mid-April?
“This joyride ends in a Hindenburg-like ending,” moped the team’s play-by-play announcer, Jack Edwards, invoking a disaster that somehow might not seem inappropriate in New England.
The regular season has been rendered as obsolete as a mullet. It’s also disproportionate to reality, an intellect check for those who spent six months prematurely deifying the Bruins. And, for that matter, the defending champion Colorado Avalanche, who were eliminated by the Seattle Kraken — the who, the what? And the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are gone after reaching the Cup finals each of the last three years. And the New York Rangers, who acquired Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane amid title aspirations and were toasted by New Jersey. Is it some sort of north-of-the-border conspiracy designed to facilitate Canada’s first Cup victory in three decades, with Toronto and Edmonton now favored to reach the final? From this point on, an 82-game schedule should be viewed as a warmup act for the playoffs, a positioning of seeds and nothing more. Mostly, franchises should examine the instructive debris of tragic sports frauds, the Bruins, who spent too much time and energy on flim-flam records that meant nothing once Carter Verhaeghe scored the series winner in overtime of Game 7.
“They had a crazy regular season. But the playoffs are completely different,” Verhaeghe reminded. “I mean, we had a crazy regular season last year, and it really didn't amount to anything.”
A lack of on-high definition is healthy only for puckhead diehards. Otherwise, hockey needs accrued supremacy to steal attention in a preoccupied sports realm as April slides into May. Why get juiced about the best regular-season team of all time when the Bruins instantly could be exposed as charlatans? It happened four years ago, too, when the 62-win Lightning were setting records before a sweep by the lowest-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets. Since 2005, only two teams have slogged beer from the Cup — and all those other unspeakable things winners do with it — after winning a Presidents’ Trophy. The Bruins, perhaps out of boredom, actively sought history in the final weeks, flimsy as that history was.
“Being able to stay focused and learn how to win when chasing records is the closest thing you can do when you're having a season like us to prepare for the playoffs," coach Jim Montgomery said last month. “I think (the players) grasp the moment, because we're talking about the history of the NHL and how long this league has been here. I think they grasp it, like when Gretzky broke Howe's record. Our group is aware of what we're doing as a team.”
Evidently, they were not. After Wayne Gretzky passed Gordie Howe’s record for career goals in 1994, it held up for 19 seasons. The Bruins barely lasted 19 hours. Said goalie Jeremy Swayman at the time: “It's hard to win in this league and there's a reason why this record is at (65) because not many teams can get there, so it's a special honor. These guys in this room are more than deserving.”
Little did he know that starting goaltender Linus Ullmark, the Vezina Trophy winner, would have to suffer through pain — the unspecified injury was described as “debilitating” and “limited his mobility and technique” — and force Swayman to play in Game 7. The subsequent loss at home, where they had gone 34-4-3 in TD Garden during the faux season, left one of the sport’s regal legends, captain Patrice Bergeron, contemplating retirement in tears. “Right now, it’s hard to process anything,” he said. “We’re shocked and disappointed.”
“This is a tough one. We were hoping to make a good, long run here all together,” said Brad Marchand, the team’s perpetual pest, who repeatedly had warned of fool’s gold. “We obviously expected much different results this year and this series. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. This one is going to hurt for a long time.”
It’s a shame. This was an enjoyable, cohesive team we were just getting to know nationally. Players wore logos of their teammates’ family businesses, or t-shirts promoting each other’s charity foundations. “I think it’s just fun,” Ullmark said at one euphoric stage. “At first I had no idea. What are these clothes? Why are you guys wearing this stuff? What about the Spoked-B? I’m all for it. It’s a little fun gimmick we have. People around the league seem to see it, when you meet up with someone and you’re wearing … McAvoy Plumbing. What?”
Who knew they would spring the leaks?
What the collapse did was rip open long-healed scars on the region’s psyche. Not that any of us feel pity — come on, the Patriots won six times, the Red Sox four times and the Celtics and Bruins once each between 2001 and 2018 — but New England is having nightmares. Remember the heartbreak? The Curse of the Bambino? Mookie Wilson’s dookie dribbling through Bill Buckner’s legs? The Patriots bidding for a perfect season and losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII? The people thought those horrors were buried and gone.
The B’s, as they’re called, brought them back. The C’s, as they’re called, might bring more if they can’t take advantage of the NBA’s winnable Eastern Conference and lose to the 76ers. Brady is long gone. Mookie Betts is in Los Angeles and Xander Bogaerts in San Diego, victims of a management austerity movement that might leave the Red Sox in last place in a division currently ruled by low-budget, high-minded Tampa Bay. At least, the fans assumed, they had the Bruins. What have you done, Jim Montgomery? Did you waste too much sweat and focus on irrelevant records? Did you set up your team for failure, beneath the burden of higher expectations?
“To give you a real intelligent answer about that right now, I can’t,” said Montgomery, who won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach. “I just, I can’t contemplate it. … The way it ended didn’t matter. It’s just that the season is over. I guess words that come to mind right now are disappointment and confusion.”
Contemplate this: Crashes happen, more often than you think. The Golden State Warriors would be chasing their sixth NBA title, trying to tie the six-pack of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, had they not blown a 3-1 lead to LeBron James and Cleveland in 2016. Remember the Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games in 2001 but lost in the playoffs? This postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks were crushed by Jimmy Butler and the eighth-seeded Miami Heat after compiling the league’s best record, 58-24. Then their fans had to hear the resident superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, rationalize failure.
“Do you get a promotion every year on your job? No, right? So every year you work is a failure, yes or no? No. Every year you work towards a goal. ... It's not a failure; it's steps to success," he said. “There's always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That's what you're telling me?
“It's a wrong question; there's no failure in sports. There's good days, bad days. Some days you're able to be successful, some days you're not. Some days it's your turn, some days it's not your turn. And that's what sports is about. You don't always win. Sometimes other people win. And this year somebody else is going to win, simple as that.”
Giannis is lucky he doesn’t play in Boston. They’d devour him like chowder on a cold day. Having experienced a dozen championships in one generation, they’d rather rip Montgomery for playing Bergeron in Game 82 and ditching his goalie rotation than accept the reality of 21st-century sports: Teams that win regular seasons, in all leagues, are far from sure bets to win it all. In the NBA, only five of the last 17 regular-season winners won titles. In Major League Baseball, six of the last 17 have pulled through. In the NFL, only four of the last 17 top seeds have won a Lombardi Trophy.
So watch and value all of those deadweight games, through month after month of drudgery, at your own peril. In a fair world, leagues would decrease ticket prices for regular seasons because those games aren’t worth a damn. Of course, that isn’t happening, because owners care about profits more than you. The NHL should consider a revision, though.
Instead of a Presidents’ Trophy, how about a participation trophy?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.