Hockey returned to its Causeway Street roots Sunday, the Bruins finally lugging sticks and logging shifts amid a season nearly rendered a “DNP” (did not play) by the third lockout in NHL history. The real stuff begins Saturday when the Rangers come to town, but by the looks of Practice No. 1, much of what we’ll see on Opening Night will look very familiar.
“You’re going to see pretty much what you’ve seen before,’’ noted general manager Peter Chiarelli, who greeted the media in a morning news conference. “You’re going to see a good team.’’
How good, of course, depends on such factors as:
■ Tuukka Rask’s readiness to fill the No. 1 goalie position vacated by Tim “Back to the Bunker” Thomas.
■ Raw rookie Dougie Hamilton’s ability to contribute valuable, possibly offensively productive, minutes to the blue line. He looked hand-in-glove comfortable partnering with Dennis Seidenberg during long stretches of Sunday’s one-hour workout. “I’m going to help him out as much as I can,’’ promised the dependable Seidenberg.
■ Nathan Horton’s effectiveness now that he appears to have overcome his long-lingering concussion symptoms. He last played Jan. 22, and plugged in on right wing in the first skate with first-line partners Milan Lucic and David Krejci.
■ The full lineup’s ability to thrive in a grueling schedule that dictates playing 48 games across 96 days before the start of the playoffs in the first week of May. The playoffs again will have clubs playing every other night for the duration, with Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final set for June 28 (jot that down in your wedding planner). “We’ll all have to rest, eat well,’’ said Patrice Bergeron, back only recently from Lugano, Switzerland, where he kept his game tuned. “We all know it’s going to be a tight schedule. We’ll be smart, enjoy it.’’
What a difference, in terms of roster composition and confidence, between what was on display Sunday and how the Bruins emerged from the 2004-05 lockout.
When camp opened in October 2005, following a full season lost to labor strife, the Bruins were minus the likes of veterans Sergei Gonchar, Mike Knuble, and Michael Nylander, all but leaving then-GM Mike O’Connell to scour the Pioneer Valley midnight beer league to spackle and patch his roster. Team owner Jeremy Jacobs was certain O’Connell would have the pick of the litter in post-lockout free agency, but instead O’Connell was left to pick from the litter box. Thanks, boss.
Chiarelli, with the lockout looming this time, opted to write long-term deals for core roster players such as Lucic, Brad Marchand, and Tyler Seguin. All of which now leaves such pressing issues as how to fill the third-line left wing spot (perhaps Chris Bourque), how best to massage the final look of the blue line, and whether to stock the team buffet with red or green grapes. For the record: The back line opening is Hamilton’s to lose, and if he can’t hold it then it’s up to candidates Matt Bartkowski, Aaron Johnson, or David Warsofsky.
The practice tempo was quick, the feel business-like. If not for the slightly larger roster, it had the ho-hum aura of a mid-January workout in a season that started in October. The surplus of 5-6 players was barely noticeable, no surprise under the efficient hand of coach Claude Julien.
The workout was open to the public, with some 500 fans in the stands as it began just before 1 p.m. Free admission, free parking, a rarity in Jacobstown, and free eats weren’t enough to coax more than, say, a couple of thousand fans to the workout. A better barometer of the state of the Hub’s hockey heart could be Tuesday night when the doors will be swung open wide again for a Black-and-Gold scrimmage.
The bet here is that the Spoked-B interest remains robust. Remember, these are fans who have survived nearly 40 years of detesting ownership, the season-ticket level sinking below 5,000 prior to the renaissance that began with the change in management and the acquisition of team captain Zdeno Chara. Some of the true believers remained on board through a 39-year Cup drought, still talking of days of Orr and Espo, Park and O’Reilly, Neely and Oates, and Jumbo Joe, too.
If Blaine Lacher and Clayton Beddoes didn’t close the show on Causeway, then the business probably will survive twin dunderheads Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. We’re Boston, vastly different today than we were in the Original Six era, but the game remains genetically wired into our sports core, even in an era when the once-laughable Patriots have edged the mighty, mighty BoSox for top billing in town.
As practice reached its end, a long line of fans stood in an aisle in the Garden’s lower bowl, patiently waiting for team president Cam Neely to pose for pictures and sign autographs. When Chara grabbed a microphone and thanked everyone for coming, and especially for enduring through the lockout, the crowd hooted and hollered. Teenage girls screamed for a staged TV shoot, as if Bergeron had just canned the Cup clincher. A guy in a P.J. Stock No. 42 sweater sat near center ice, scrutinizing line combinations and defensive pairings with fixed glare.
The long wait is over, a new season, albeit downsized, is about to begin. First the Rangers, then the Jets (Monday matinee), and who knows what come May and June. Most of the faces remain the same, the goal the same as ever. Game on. We’ll find out soon if it was worth the wait.