An unusual thing happened whenever the Bruins were screened at airports by customs inspectors these last three years: More of their passports said “United States of America’’ than “Canada.’’
It is a first in the franchise’s 94-year history, as the Bruins have become the face of an evolving National Hockey League. While the trend toward homegrown talent and European stars is accelerating in a league long dominated by Canadians, no other NHL team carried more Americans (19) this season than the Bruins, which also had fewer Canadians (7) than any prior Bruins team.
Should the new-age Bruins win the Stanley Cup, they would become the first NHL team to do so with so many more Americans than Canadians.
O, Canada. No offense intended, said Bruins president Cam Neely, a son of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He insists he never set out to turn Boston’s Black and Gold red, white, and blue.
“It’s just by coincidence, to be honest,’’ said Neely, a Hall of Fame former Bruins winger. “We try to identify the best players, regardless of where they’re from.’’
Though Neely has presided over the Americanization of a franchise that stands on the shoulders of such Canadian greats as Eddie Shore, Bobby Orr, and Patrice Bergeron, he insists that the transformation is not based on a home-country bias.
“When our amateur scouts are out around the globe, they compile lists,’’ Neely said. “When we go over those lists, we don’t really look at where the players are from. We look at what kind of hockey players they are.’’
They ask questions.
“Is he a good teammate?’’ Neely said. “Is he going to go to war with you, so to speak? Can he help us?’’
The answers, for American talent in recent years, have time and again been “yes.’’
Selecting Matt Grzelcyk, the Boston University forward from Charlestown, in the 2012 draft? Signing the undrafted Torey Krug of Michigan the same year?
And Charlie McAvoy, another BU star, from Long Beach, N.Y., in the 2016 draft? And a week later, $30 million on free agent and Minnesota native David Backes?
And so on: from Massachusetts, Chris Wagner and Charlie Coyle; from Ohio, Sean Kuraly; Brandon Carlo of Colorado; and Noel Acciari of Rhode Island.
The Canadians remain key contributors — Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Jake DeBrusk, and Danton Heinen. And among the 11 Europeans is a vital crew of Czechs — David Pastrnak and David Krejci — and a Finnish sensation in net, Tukka Rask.
All of which makes Neely reluctant to brand these Bruins “America’s Team.’’
“I look at it like we’re New England’s team,’’ he said. “There are a lot of transplanted New Englanders across the states who come and watch us play. I’ve always thought that was awesome.’’
Remaking the B’s American-style has taken decades. When Orr and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970, every player on the roster was Canadian.
By 1972 the Bruins had won five Stanley Cups with just two Americans in those playoff games: Minnesota-born Hall of Fame goalie Frank Brimsek in 1939 and ’42, and a Melrose kid named Myles Lane in 1929.
When Mike Milbury of Walpole High School joined Orr and the Bruins in 1975 as a 23-year-old undrafted invitee, the NHL was 90 percent Canadian, 7.5 percent American, and 2.5 percent European. Milbury was one of only four Americans on an otherwise all-Canadian team.
He recalled trying so hard to make a good impression that one Canadian veteran barked at him, “Slow down, kid, you’re making us look bad,’’ and another waved his stick in his face, menacingly.
“There was still a stigma of being an American at the time,’’ Milbury said. “In fact, all of us — the Swedes, Russians, Finns, and Americans — were deemed to be too weak and not tough enough to play in the league.’’
“There was a definite bias from the Canadian hierarchy,’’ Milbury said.
At the end of his 12-year Bruins career, Milbury was one of just seven Americans and three Finns playing alongside the Canadians.
“I guess you could say hockey was slow to the world of diversity,’’ he said.
In his first year as Bruins coach in 1990, Milbury guided them to the Stanley Cup Final, with two Canadians (Neely and Ray Bourque) and five Americans (Craig Janney, Bob Carpenter, Bob Sweeney, Andy Brickley, and John Carter) as his leading scorers. They were defeated by the Edmonton Oilers, whose roster had but one American.
The biggest boom in American talent in the NHL came soon after, triggered by the league expansions, and the NHL teaming up with USA Hockey to fund a vibrant developmental program.
That program has launched the collegiate and NHL careers of scores of Americans: BU alone had 20 former players on NHL rosters this season, including McAvoy, Grzelcyk, and eight others who rose through the national program.
“USA Hockey deserves a tremendous amount of credit,’’ said Brian Burke, a longtime NHL executive involved in creating the program. “It was an amazing vision and an amazing commitment of funds, and it has had the most direct effect on the number of Americans playing in the NHL.’’
During that period, the league brought franchises to Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, and California, and the new teams created programs for kids who had never considered playing the sport.
One of those was Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller, who grew up in Southern California, inspired by the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. He was one of 13 California-born players on NHL rosters this season, according to Quanthockey.com; Florida had six, Texas five, Arizona and the Carolinas each had two, and even Alabama had one — states that rarely produced NHL players before the expansion.
Since 2000, the percentage of American players in the NHL has jumped to 28.6 from 15.5, while Canadians have dropped to 43.5 percent, from 54.7 percent; that trend is expected to continue.
“The doors are open now, wide open,’’ Milbury said. “It’s still Canada’s national pastime, so you’re going to still have plenty of Canadians in the league. But we’re at the point where you have general managers saying, ‘We don’t check passports.’ They just want the best players.’’
The Bruins were one of 10 NHL teams with more Americans than Canadians this season; only Pittsburgh had as many — 19 US-born players, to 12 Canadians.
The Penguins were the first to win a Stanley Cup with more Americans than Canadians, in 2016.
This year, the Bruins have to go through the Blues, whose old-school roster includes a league-high 20 Canadians, with only five Americans, three Europeans, and a couple of Russians.
Should they prevail, the Causeway Street skaters could become the most American of all NHL champions. But for the sake of international peace and harmony, Neely would settle for calling them “New England’s team.’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.