Little Liam wins "Fan of the Game"

Earlier this month, a video made the rounds of an adorable moppet in Bruins gear fist-bumping the entire team as they left the ice after their pre-game warmups. (If you haven’t already seen the video, do your mood a favor and watch it…or, if like me, you’ve watched it countless times, take a minute to watch it again. It’s impossible not to smile when you see the obvious joy on the kid’s face as each player acknowledges him.)

Liam fist-bumps the team

The adorable moppet in that viral video is eight-year-old Liam Fitzgerald, and he was in attendance at yesterday’s Black Friday matchup between the Boston Bruins and the Winnipeg Jets. Little Liam, who was born with Down’s syndrome, diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at age four, and now endures daily injections of growth hormones, has become an unofficial Bruins mascot. Hockey players pride themselves for their mental and physical toughness, and you have to admire the toughness of eight-year-old who has beat cancer, continues to face medical challenges, and still finds unbridled joy in something as simple as meeting his favorite hockey players.

During the third period of every home Bruins game, fans vote for the “Fan of the Game.” While three candidates are shown on the scoreboard screen, fans cheer and applaud for their favorite. At yesterday’s game, the matchup between the Bruins and the Jets was a nail-biter that went into overtime. But when it came to voting for the “Fan of the Game,” there was no contest, fans going absolutely wild when little Liam was shown on the big screen, his dad holding him on his shoulder like a modern-day Tiny Tim.

This is my Day Twenty-Nine contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Face off

There is a long-standing tradition in Boston for the TD Garden to host both a Bruins and a Celtics game on Black Friday. J and I have gone to Black Friday Bruins games in the past, with the above photo coming from 2009. But today for the first time, we went to both games, watching the Celtics lose in the afternoon and the Bruins clinch a sudden-death overtime win in the evening. In between games, while the Garden crew scrambled to pull up the basketball parquet and prep the ice beneath, J and I walked to Quincy Market, where we had dinner and admired Christmas lights with throngs of Black Friday shoppers.

This is my (belated) Day Twenty-Eight contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson

Yesterday, in the happy aftermath of the Boston Bruins’ Wednesday night Stanley Cup victory, I took a moment to look through the Boston Public Library’s online collection of vintage hockey photos by Leslie Jones. Jones was a staff photographer for the Boston Herald-Traveler from 1917 to 1956, so his photos capture an era when “old time hockey” was simply the style of the day.

Bruins form the letter "B" on the ice, Boston Garden, 1930-31

Boston has a long history as a hockey town, and that is evident in Jones’ photos. There are team photos like the one at left, where Bruins players form the letter “B” on the Boston Garden ice, and there are posed portraits of old-time hockey heroes such as goalie Tiny Thompson (pictured above), a four-time Vezina Trophy winner who led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory in 1929. Just as interesting, though, are more casual images of players signing autographs, leading hockey clinics for local kids, or hanging out in the team locker room. Jones’ photos capture the news of his day, and now that news is history, a faded record of how things used to be.

Bruins team on the ice, Boston Garden

Throughout this past season, the National Hockey League has run a series of commercials encouraging fans to watch games because “history will be made.” Early in the playoffs, these commercials featured classic games such as the 1982 Miracle on Manchester, in which the Los Angeles Kings overcame a 5-0 deficit to beat Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, or the 1987 Easter Epic, a playoff game between the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals that went into four overtime periods. As the playoffs and Stanley Cup finals progressed, however, the commercials captured history-making moments from games that were merely days old, like the Canucks’ last minute win (“History goes down to the wire”) in Game 1, the Bruins’ 8-1 blowout (“History makes a statement”) in Game 3, or the Bruins’ 4-0 first period lead (“History works fast”) in Game 6. The message of these commercials was clear: keep your eyes open, because you never know when a lighting-fast play will make history.

Boston Bruins Clapper, Kamensky, and Barry, 1934-1935

And yet, the road to the Stanley Cup finals is filled with mundane moments that probably didn’t feel historic at the time. Today, I read an article about Bruins goalie Tim Thomas that explained how his working class parents in Flint, Michigan sold their wedding rings to send him to goalie camp as a kid. “They did it, likely, without even entertaining the idea that he’d one day make the NHL,” the article notes. “They did it, simply, because playing the game made him happy.” Thomas and his teammates won the Stanley Cup (“History returns to Boston”) because at each step along the way, they did the little things that add up to big wins. Some days, you know you’re making history by doing something monumental, like playing in a championship game. Most days, though, you’re just living your life: waking up, getting out of bed, and practicing (again) whatever job, sport, or craft you do. You send your kid to goalie camp, in other words, not because you think he’ll win the Stanley Cup decades later; you send your kid to goalie camp because you know it will make his day today.

Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson in locker room

I just started reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and in its opening pages, Bryson says something interesting about history. Realizing that people have lived in the vicinity of his English home for “centuries and centuries…quietly going about their daily business,” Bryson realizes this sort of mundane activity is “really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things.” Although Bryson’s childhood schoolbooks were devoted to “historic” events such as battles and treaties, Bryson realizes as an adult that history is really the story of people “eating, sleeping, having sex, or endeavoring to be amused.”

When Leslie Jones took these now-archival photos, did he think he was making history? I suspect not. The commentary for the BPL Flickr collection of Jones’ work notes that Jones was “[m]odest about his abilities as a photographer…call[ing] himself a camera-man, not a photo-journalist.” Leslie Jones, in other words, made history simply by doing his job. Those NHL commercials were designed to inspire you to watch hockey games, but maybe the tagline “history will be made” should be a reminder for us to pay attention in our daily lives. Whether you realize it or not, the snapshot moments of your life today will automatically become the stuff of tomorrow’s history.

Save by Thomas!

The last time I blogged about the Boston Bruins was in November, when J and I saw the boys in black and gold lose to the LA Kings in a shootout. J and I went to roughly a dozen Bruins game this season, and nearly all of them ended like that November game: in losses. We saw the Bruins lose so many weekend home games, in fact, we started to joke about the players’ party habits. Obviously the boys in black and gold were spending too much time on Friday night ruining their reflexes for Saturday.

Shoot it like you mean it!

In other words, if you had told me in November that the Bruins would be playing for the Stanley Cup in June, I would have laughed, shrugged my shoulders, and felt your forehead for a fever. It wasn’t that the Bruins played badly in the games we went to; their play was simply inconsistent. For every laser-like shot-on-goal, there were a handful of missed opportunities. For every stunning save by goalie Tim Thomas, there were an awkward assortment of embarrassing lapses, many of them made by back-up goaltender Tuukka Rask. At many games, we weren’t sure whether we should cheer or wince, or whether we should hope for a rally or steel ourselves against the inevitable. We never doubted the Bruins could win the games we attended this season; we just witnessed too many instances when they didn’t.

Dropping the puck

The dozen or so Bruins games J and I went to this season, in other words, felt like a microcosm of what it used to be like to root for the Boston Red Sox, back when they were lovable losers who inspired seismic mood swings in their rabid fans. “At least we’ll able to get tickets next year,” became our resigned remark after every home loss, just as “Maybe next year” became a mantra among pre-2004 Red Sox fans. I’ve blogged before, in the context of the New England Patriots’ jaw-dropping 2008 Super Bowl loss, about the movie Still We Believe, a documentary chronicling the Red Sox’ disastrous 2003 seasons:

This resigned familiarity with heartbreak, after all, is what defines a true Boston sports fan. When I first watched Still We Believe when it debuted in the spring of 2004, before the Red Sox finally broke their infamous World Series curse, I couldn’t help but wonder what people outside New England would think about the insane mood swings of the die-hard fans featured in the film, which follows the Red Sox’ heartbreaking 2003 season. Could anyone but a long-suffering Sox fan understand that the fans in the film were extreme but not exaggerated?

One on one

Throughout the Bruins’ current playoffs run, they’ve reminded me a bit of the 2004 Red Sox. Those guys were a bunch of shaggy-haired idiots whose motivational slogan was “Why not us?” This year’s Bruins are unlikely enough: during much of the season, we weren’t sure they’d even make it into the playoffs, and at each stage of their climb toward the Cup, there have been plenty of moments when J and I found ourselves shaking our heads and shrugging our shoulders. “It’s OVAH,” we’d lament, sounding like the character of Angry Bill from Still We Believe, whose Sox-inspired mood swings almost give him a heart attack in one scene. On paper, the Bruins are the definite underdogs to the Vancouver Canucks, who have played consistently well all season. But still, given the blood, sweat, and sheer determination it took to get the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals, why couldn’t they win? In the words of beloved Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz, “Why not?”

Setting up the shot

And so, it all comes down to this. Tonight the Bruins and Canucks will meet at the TD Garden for Game Six in their best-of-seven series. With the Canucks leading the series three games to two, the Bruins are indeed the underdogs…and yet, the three games the B’s have lost were decided by a single goal, and the two games they won were blow-outs. Tonight, the Canucks are playing for the Cup, which will be in attendance at the TD Garden in case they win, and the Bruins will be playing for their championship lives, lest their dreams for the Cup be crushed. The Bruins could win tonight, leading to an epic Game Seven in Vancouver, but the question is “Will they?”

Tim Thomas take a breather

In true mood-swinging fashion, I don’t know whether to hold out hope for a Boston Game Six win or to steel myself against the disappointment of “almost, but maybe next year.” All I’ll say for sure is I think this series will go to seven, as our experience attending a dozen losing home games this season taught J and me that these things always drag down to the bitter end. All I know for sure is that both J and I will be glued to the TV, watching every last shot and save.

Krejci takes a shot

J and I had hoped for a fairytale finish to Saturday night’s hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings. After the Bruins clambered back from a three-goal deficit to tie the game in the third period, it all came down to a sudden-death shoot-out. It would have been storybook-perfect had the Bruins’ David Krejci scored the game-winning goal in his first game back after suffering a concussion two weeks ago, but he missed, and the Kings’ Michal Handzus made his shot: game over.

The game-deciding goal

After the game, it was cold as J and I walked to Government Center to catch a subway home, shivering in our hockey jerseys and autumn-weight jackets. As we walked home from our stop, the full moon beamed brilliantly overhead, as white as ice as it cast cold moonshadows of bare, twiggy branches on the sidewalks and pavement.

Already this season, we’ve been to three Bruins’ games, and they’ve lost all three times: twice in nail-biter shootouts, and once in regulation. All that was forgotten, though, in the crystal-bright light of an almost-winter moon as Orion in his spangled belt skated headlong across the frozen sky, stars glittering like sparks from his skate-blades.

Fenway classic

When I first envisioned what it would be like to watch a hockey game at Fenway Park, this is the picturesque scene I imagined, with the grandstands full of fans, an outfield full of snow, and an ice rink incongruously centered between first and third base.

Unfortunately, J’s and my tickets to Sunday’s Legends Classic–a charity fundraiser match featuring former Bruins players and celebrities–afforded us this view:

Section 7 obstructed view

Having a great view of a steel girder is a classic predicament at Fenway Park, where architectural oddities provide an abundance of “obstructed view” seats and where the seats in older sections are antiques:

Section 7 seats

J and I were lucky, though. Whereas the guy in the row ahead of us was seated directly behind The Pole, J and I could crane our heads left or right for a pole-free view of the on-ice action:

Unobstructed Section 7 view

Sunday’s Legends Classic was the day-after finale to Saturday’s Winter Classic, in which the Boston Bruins played the Philadelphia Flyers in Boston’s beloved (and history-laden) Fenway Park. J and I couldn’t afford tickets to the Winter Classic, which were going for hundreds and even thousands of dollars on online ticket reseller sites. J and I are diehard sports fans, but we can’t stomach ticket resellers (a.k.a. legalized scalpers) and their jacked-up fees.

No ticket scalping (here)

So while we enjoyed watching Saturday’s Winter Classic on TV from the best seat in our house, on Sunday we took the T to Fenway Park to watch a friendly game of old-time hockey played by old-timers.

Opening face-off

Part of the allure of the Legends Classic for J and me was the simple opportunity to set foot in Fenway Park. Although J and I have been dating for three years and have gone to nine Red Sox games together, we’ve always traveled to other cities (Atlanta twice and Oakland once) to see the Red Sox play. Instead of paying those aforementioned jacked-up ticket reseller rates for baseball tickets, we’ve participated in the surprisingly common phenomenon of the Red Sox pilgrimage, whereby diehard Sox fans converge on cities where the Sox are playing, buy face-value seats to the entire series of games, and root root root for the away team.

Blades & Wally pose by the Green Monster

Sunday’s Legends Classic allowed J and me to kill two proverbial birds with one stone. We got to set foot in Fenway Park, and we got to see the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of a hockey game there. When else could we watch local youth hockey teams play in the outfield shadow of giants…

In the shadow of giants

…or see the Bruins’ mascot, Blades, greet fans alongside the Red Sox’ mascot, Wally the Green Monster?

Wally and Blades work the crowd

On-ice, a game that matched retired pros with celebrities who haven’t laced up skates in decades offered its own kind of hilarity, with one goalie playing the entire game with two cans of Budweiser and some hydration tubes strapped to his mask…

Bobby Farrelly with his Budweiser-hydration helmet

…while a motley crew of helmeted, hatted, and bare-headed old-timers eschewed the subtlety of puck-passing, choosing instead to congregate in a frozen free-for-all wherever the puck happened to be.

Free-for-all

After spending the first period fighting The Pole for a decent view of the action, during intermission J and I took a walk around Fenway, where we took in the usual ballpark sights and smells…

Beer and nuts

…before finding a section near the electronic scoreboard…

Under the electronic scoreboard

…where there were empty (albeit snowy) seats.

Snowy seats

From this blissfully unobstructed vantage point, J and I had a much better view of those old-time hockey plays as they unfolded…

Old time hockey, played by old-timers

…and we finally got a chance to take a classic shot of Fenway on ice.

View from centerfield

Click here for a photo-set of images from Sunday’s Legends Classic, including two panoramic shots: one from our original section in right field and the other from our adopted section in center field. Enjoy!

A sight no one wants to see

It’s a sight no one playing on or rooting for either team wants to see: a lone hockey player lying face-down, unmoving, long after play has continued down ice. At yesterday’s Boston Bruins game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Patrice Bergeron collided with opposing defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and lay on the ice for a heart-stopping handful of minutes while fans and players alike were silenced, holding our collective breath while watching for any sign of movement.

With a little help from his team

During that heart-stopping handful of minutes we all watched Bergeron’s lifeless body, I flashed through other heart-stopping Boston sports moments: the face-first slam against the boards that took Bergeron out for an entire season last October, for example, or the heartbreaking moment in 1995, when Travis Roy was paralyzed from the neck down only 11 seconds into his Boston University hockey career. Outside hockey, there’s the image of Celtics captain Reggie Lewis collapsing during an off-season basketball practice in 1993, dead from a sudden heart-attack at the age of 27. Sports fans thrill at the sight of honed bodies performing at their best; we don’t expect the young and strong to fall victim to the random vicissitudes of injury or accident.

Travis Roy (just like Superman!) went on to establish a charitable foundation for victims of spinal cord injuries, there is an inner-city track and athletic complex commemorating Reggie Lewis, and Patrice Bergeron eventually regained consciousness, slowly regained his feet, and skated off the ice with the help of a handful of teammates. There is, in other words, hope after any one of us–young or old, strong or weak, in shape or out–suffers injury or accident. In Zen, we say “fall down six times, get up seven”: it’s not about never failing, but always getting up to try again, and again, and again…somehow. You can’t keep a tough player down, especially if he has an entire team of friends helping him to his feet again, and that applies both on and off the ice, in hockey and beyond.