The Bruins’ outdoor practice complete, and the afternoon sky over Fenway Park on Sunday dimming to a slate gray, Zack Bergeron challenged his dad to a race. Family bragging rights were on the line, deep at the end of the ice closest to the third base line at the old ballpark.
Young Zack (draft class 2034?) bolted to the early lead, forcing Patrice, the Bruins’ 37-year-old captain, to lunge forward, dive facefirst into a belly slide, with both arms extended straight ahead as he fought to cross the finish line first.
Dads, no matter how famous, sometimes will sacrifice all dignity and decorum for a win. Especially if a certain someone is playing with the race rules.
“At first I thought [the end] was goal line,” said Patrice, rolling both eyes as he recapped the race, “but then he said it was all the way to the boards and I didn’t slide all the way through, so . . . yeah . . . so he won.”
Come 2:30 Monday, when the puck is dropped at the Fens (coverage starts at 2 p.m.), the rules won’t be so, shall we say, malleable when the Bruins and Penguins square off in the 2023 Winter Classic. Almost every NHL game has a wrinkle or two when it comes to officiating, but kids aren’t allowed to be part of the action, and belly slides are generally the consequence of a hooking or tripping penalty that leads to a two-minute power play.
Fun, the order of the day along Jersey Street for both clubs Sunday, will give way Monday to the workaday world of the NHL. When everyone’s having such a blast, with friends and family filling the sheet with smiles and laughs after each workout Sunday, it can be easy to let the mind slip, forget that the Winter Classic is a bona fide NHL game worth what can be crucial points in the standings.
From that perspective, it probably means more for the 19-11-6 Penguins, who arrived at New Year’s Day tied with the Islanders in a scrum for the two wild-card spots in the East.
The Penguins have struggled to find the consistency that led to back-to-back Cup wins in 2016 and ‘17.
The Penguins haven’t made it beyond the second round in their five trips to the playoffs since that ‘17 title. Strip out all the glamour and fun of what has become the NHL’s signature midseason classic and, yeah, the points are important for Mike Sullivan’s team.
Meanwhile, the Bruins, who lost to the Sabres, 4-3, in overtime Saturday, have gone a season-high 10 straight games (7-0-3) banking at least 1 point. They are pegged at the top of the league’s overall standings with a 28-4-4 mark and enter the Winter Classic with the reassurance that they have gone 7-0-0 this season after losses.
Even if they were to lose, they have enough points banked still to be ranked at the top of the Original 32.
Bergeron, tied for second in team scoring (30 points) with linemate Brad Marchand, said he wasn’t worried, amid a festive event that can be distracting, about refocusing the team’s attention.
“It’s always a nice reminder that we still need to be in the moment,” said Bergeron. “We’ll still need to play the right way and be structurally sound and all that. And I think it’s a reminder to be thankful to play in this game . . . it’s another event that we of course enjoy, but, that being said, we have to put in the work to make it an even better event and come out on top.”
Following the workout, the Bruins retreated to what is normally the Red Sox clubhouse. Charlestown’s Matt Grzelcyk, who played in the club’s Winter Classic win over Chicago at Notre Dame in 2019, was particularly pleased with his locker location at the far end of the room.
“I actually got one of Big Papi’s stalls,” said a smiling Grzelcyk, referring to legendary Sox slugger David Ortiz “So hopefully some of his juju rubs off for tomorrow.”
Grzelcyk, a 2012 draft pick, was yet to turn 16 when the Bruins first played Fenway in 2010. He had a shot at playing in an outdoor game at the Fens during his four years at BU, but noted Sunday that he had to pull out of the lineup two days prior to puck drop after dislocating a shoulder.
“It was agonizing” he said. “But just to be here [then] and be part of that whole thing was unbelievable . . . this is special for sure.”
Bruins coach Jim Montgomery, a strong contender for the Jack Adams award as the league’s best coach this season, grew up playing the game at his favorite outdoor rink in downtown Montreal.
“Forty-second Park,” that was the name of it, he recalled Sunday.
Shoveling snow, of course, was standard practice for all stick-carrying wannabes.
“Yeah, we all took turns when there was too much snow on there,” he said. “You really waited till the pucks got buried before you shoveled, though.”
There was no snow Sunday in the Back Bay, with partial sunshine and temps in the mid-50s. If the forecast holds true, it will be much the same on Monday, perhaps with a bit more sunshine — by far the most comfortable viewing of the three Winter Classics the league has staged here (including Gillette).
Montgomery, surrounded by friends and family, spent most of his time talking and looking round the old yard while standing near center ice for most of the post-workout session.
“You’re in Fenway Park, and I’m thinking about how many people have dreamt about being in the middle of Fenway Park,” he mused, “and here we are getting the opportunity to be part of the Winter Classic . . . I think about my boys and what it would have meant to me at their age to be able to have this kind of experience, you know? It’s incredible.”
It was a moment, Montgomery later recalled, that took him back to his childhood days at Forty-second Park.
“The only thing reminiscent,” he added, “was when I was 5 years old . . . is that I was the worst player on the ice, again.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.