By Douglas Flynn – Reprinted because no longer available online
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
It might be hard to believe in a city currently deluged by pink Red Sox hats, Tedy Bruschi jerseys and Celtics banners, but the Bruins once held a place in the hearts of Boston’s sports fans in a way the city’s “Big Three” franchises could only dream.
In the early 1970s, Bobby Orr and the Big, Bad Bruins simply owned this town. Fans flocked to the Garden, tuned into WSBK TV-38 religiously, and so many kids wanted to follow in the skates of Orr and Co. that dozens of rinks were built across the region to meet the demand.
In the ensuing decades, though, that popularity slowly and steadily eroded and, despite the presence of so many storied college and high school programs in the area, Boston’s identity as a hockey town faded with it.
Nearly four decades without a championship, an extended reign of an unpopular owner and league-wide problems culminating with a complete season lost to labor strife will have that effect, especially when the other three teams in town are more than ready to fill the void as they rack up titles.
But through all the down times, when the Bruins nearly slipped off the city’s sports map entirely following back-to-back last-place finishes in the first two years back from the owners’ lockout, there remained a large, albeit dormant, hockey fan base here just waiting for something to cheer again.
The Bruins finally gave them exactly that this season, and the city responded. Hardcore hockey fanatics and the casual sports fans alike turned out in droves, and the heart of a hockey city began beating once again.
“I think, frankly, that a lot more people have tuned in and understand just how close this team is (to a championship),” said Bruins principal Charlie Jacobs. “People have reconnected with this franchise that maybe hadn’t in the previous years. It was really started to reflect that in this community, and we’re seeing that. We’re seeing that interest on our Web site. We’re seeing that on our broadcasts. And we’re seeing that at the box office. People by and large in this city feel good about where their team is today when they think of the Boston Bruins, and that only bodes well for us.”
The Bruins’ resurgent popularity had a lot to do with its on-ice revival, as Boston finished atop the Eastern Conference with 116 points, its highest total since its last Stanley Cup championship team in 1972. But it wasn’t all just about winning games; it was also about winning back fans with a back-to-the-future, old-school approach.
Losing alone hadn’t turned off the hockey faithful in recent years. Committing the cardinal sin of playing boring, passive hockey to go along with all that losing is what really kept the fans away.
“The reason we regained popularity in the city isn’t just because we won games,” said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference. “It’s because we had a certain attitude on a team and a certain type of player. It was an honest, hard-working type of guy and that’s just as important to our success in the city as the fact that we were winning games.”
No one embodied that more than second-year forward Milan Lucic, who endeared himself to the gallery gods more with his board-rattling (and glass-shattering) hits and bare-knuckle beatdowns than with his 17 goals. The response elicited by that style of play shocked even Lucic.
“A little bit … obviously you want to be appreciated, but I didn’t think it was going to happen so quick,” said Lucic. “I’m happy to be here, be a part of this team, be a part of this city, this sports town. It’s such a great sports town and the fans make it that way. And to be appreciated by them makes it so much greater for me.”
Lucic, along with popular tough guy Shawn Thornton and imposing captain Zdeno Chara, struck a chord with fans longing for the days of the Big, Bad Bruins and Don Cherry’s “Lunchpail Gang.”
Lucic recognizes he owes much of his popularity to being part of that legacy of rough-and-tumble Bruin greats.
“I think that is all because of what everyone has done here before me,” said Lucic. “You look at all the guys they loved and adored before I ever came here, Terry O’Reilly and Cam (Neely) and Stan Jonathan. It was those guys that went out there and worked hard and did all those kind of things that (the fans) grew accustomed to and what they liked the most.
“It just so happens that that’s the type of player that I am. It fits into the identity of what a Bruin is. It’s awesome that the fans appreciate it and I couldn’t be happier to be anywhere than here in Boston.”
Boston fans couldn’t be happier to have Lucic around, or to finally have a link to that hard-hitting Bruins heritage.
“I get recognized when I go out more and more now,” said Lucic. “It’s great to hear a lot of them saying they’re back on board with the team this year. That was the best thing to hear is how much they’ve come back and enjoyed watching us this year and enjoyed what we’ve done.”
That bond to Boston’s past meant even more than the winning, maybe in part because after 37 years without a Cup, Bruins fans were wary of another disappointing finish. But give them an entertaining ride along the way, and they’ll come along no matter how much they fear what the end might be like.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a rebirth, but there was a definite interest in the team again,” said Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward. “We as players heard it over and over again: ‘Oh, it’s the Bruins, we’re just going to wait for them to fall.’ But we didn’t start falling, and then you started noticing a number of things come together. There was kind of the rebirth of the fan base and there was a sense of nostalgia.
“It was funny to listen to people around town talk about it. It’s not about, ‘Hey you guys played pretty good last night.’ It was, ‘You guys are playing really well now and it reminds me of …’ and everybody had a story. It was nice to feel a connection with the city again.”
There was suddenly no shortage of people to connect with.
By almost every measurable indicator, the Bruins’ popularity soared this past season. Attendance was at a near-record level, with an average of 17,040 fans attending the 41 regular-season home games at the 17,565-seat TD Banknorth Garden. That was the second-highest average in team history, trailing only the 17,474 average from 1995-96, the first year of the then-FleetCenter.
“That was one of the things we had to change,” said Ference. “Everybody had a clear picture of what the city expected of us, as far as the style and character they wanted us to play with. Obviously, when we started to do those things, the wins and success came with it and the support was fantastic. They showed that they would support a team that was winning and represented the kind of hockey that they appreciated.
“I think that was probably one of the biggest success stories of the last couple years as far as our team is concerned, to win back a lot of people that were hockey fans, but weren’t necessarily Bruins fans for a while because this wasn’t the type of team they wanted to see.”
They wanted to see this year’s team, though, and the Garden was sold out for 26 of those regular-season dates and all six home playoff games. Of the 15 non-sellouts, 11 drew crowds of more than 16,000 and just two were under 15,000, and those were for the second and fourth home games of the year.
And there’s little reason to expect many empty seats next year, either, with season-ticket sales more than doubling in the last two years. Following that second straight last-place finish in 2006-07, the Bruins’ season-ticket base stood at just 6,220, according to a 2008 report in Street & Smith’s Business Journal. A Boston Globe report stated the numbers had dwindled even lower, at one point sinking to the 4,000 range, a number that wouldn’t have even qualified Boston for an expansion team.
But after squeaking into the playoffs in 2007-08 and pushing the top-seeded Canadiens to seven games, the Business Journal reported season tickets were up to 9,000 at the start of this past year.
And next year?
“I want to say we’re across the 13,000-seat threshold for season tickets for next year, so there’s still room for us to grow in that department,” said Charlie Jacobs.
That figure puts the season-ticket base close to the total average attendance for the club as recently as 2006-07, when the Bruins drew a new Garden-low 14,764 fans per game.
The box office reports are impressive, and certainly important in a league like the NHL where revenues are largely gate-driven. But to many, they don’t refute the common critique that there are just 17,000 Bruins fans in Boston, and they all go to the game.
But unless every fan was bringing along a TV and a Nielsen box with them to the Garden, that argument will have to be filed away on the sports anachronism shelf alongside the I-went-to-a-fight-and-a-hockey-game-broke-out jokes. The Bruins’ ratings on NESN increased by 69 percent this year, their 2.5 household average matching 1995-96 for the best full-season average in the network’s history.
In the postseason, the numbers soared even more, with a playoff record 9.6 rating for the nine games carried on NESN, including a single-game record 14.2 rating for Game 7 against Carolina. And that was with the Bruins going head-to-head with Celtics playoffs games and the Sox for many of those nights, including Game 7 airing opposite the C’s Game 6 matchup with Orlando.
The Bruins, even with their resurgent popularity, will continue to battle the Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots for attention in this sports market. Those teams have built up too much goodwill with their recent titles for the Bruins to attain the kind of domination they held in the early 1970s. But that doesn’t mean the Bruins can’t carve out their own sizeable slice of the Boston sports market pie, and maybe even win back a few more fans that had drifted over to the other pro sports teams in town.
“We’re always going to be competing with those other teams in town,” said owner Jeremy Jacobs. “And yes, there is room for all of us. Hockey is different. It’s infectious, especially when you take the character and personalities involved. It’s really a special game.
“I think there’s room in Boston,” added Jacobs. “Boston is first, second and third, and fourth, a sports town.”
And, thanks to the Bruins’ recent success and the popularity of its pugnacious style, Boston can rightly claim that it’s a hockey town once again.