Looking ahead to the NHL’s holiday break, when he and his Bruins teammates shelf their skates for three days, Brad Marchand saw nothing but good times.
“Hanging low, enjoying myself. Get some eggnog in me,” the Bruins star said with an elfish smile.
His (adult) plans for Christmas included no hockey. No games. No practices. No work responsibilities, just enjoying the break with his family and friends.
Not too long ago, Marchand, 31, was a hockey-obsessed kid in Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia. Christmas meant hockey play all day — when he wasn’t dressing up like Ninja Turtles with his brother, Jeff.
In the spirit of the season, we present a stocking stuffed full of Black and Gold holiday memories, traditions, food and fun . . .
. . .
Hockey always has been, and always will be, one of the most expensive team sports. That means sacrifice on the part of parents.
Bruins Hall of Famer Cam Neely fondly remembers how his late parents, Marlene and Mike, “scraped up enough money” to snag a pair of brand-new Cooper helmets, in the bright red and white colors of their hometown team in Maple Ridge, B.C., for a teenage Cam and his brother, Scott. “It was a big deal back then,” recalled Neely, the Bruins president. “They had just come out on the market.”
Zdeno Chara’s favorite Christmas gift ever? Around age 9, in present-day Trencin, Slovakia, the Bruins captain was overjoyed to get a red and white Titan stick, the kind North American kids associate with Wayne Gretzky.
In then-communist Czechoslovakia, there were no hockey shops for his father, Zdenek, to pluck a shiny composite model off the rack. It was handed down from a local club. A young Chara slept with it, and played it to splinters.
“I was so happy to have it,” he said. “And emotionally attached to it, too. You didn’t want to get rid of it until it was completely shattered.”
Hockey nets are a game-changing gift for a young player. They make for hours of good practice. At the Walpole home of Chris Wagner’s family, the sturdy net he got in fifth grade still sits in the driveway.
He didn’t always get what he wanted. A young Wagner would play hockey video games for hours — “I’d play 20-minute periods,” he recalled — and as a fourth-grader, he asked for NHL 2000. His father, Paul, stepped in. Instead, he got JumpStart, a math tutoring game.
“I threw an absolute fit,” he recalled. The net, clearly, got a lot more use.
. . .
As a father of Cole, 9, and Shannon, 10, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is typically just under the deadline with his presents. “Every year,” he said. “It just sneaks up on me, no matter what. What happens with me a lot, my wife [Julie] orders it online and I have to push a button or get the box at the door.”
That had him musing about a tradition lost.
“I used to love to Christmas shop,” he said. “I used to love to go get stuff for her or the kids. In Providence, we lived right across from the mall and our kids were babies, so I used to love to do that stuff. The whole week before, I’d be there every afternoon. I kind of liked the noise, the hustle and bustle. You’d scramble around, and you’re getting good ideas.”
Cassidy keeps it simple with his gifts for players, coaches and staffers: a bottle of red, something nice.
. . .
The Bruins, particularly those well-established in the league, are generous to each other year-round. Patrice Bergeron bought David Yurman necklaces for his teammates to thank them after he played in his 1,000th game last season. The gifts handed out at a hockey team’s annual Secret Santa party are far less poignant.
“Inside jokes and jabs at guys, not too many you can share,” said Matt Grzelcyk, who once received a McDonald’s gift card from a teenage teammate at the US National Team Development Program, because, “I was like 140 pounds back then.”
Along with his gift, David Backes enjoys writing a note for a teammate to read aloud.
“It’s a morale builder,” he said. “It’s a sign of acceptance when guys give you grief for whatever, what you’re wearing, what your tendencies are, a play you made. You mean enough to me that not only did I buy a gift, I know enough about you to give you a hard time. You’re part of this group.”
. . .
What would the holidays be without good food?
On Christmas morning, the Backes household smells of homemade cinnamon rolls and stove top hot cocoa. In Quebec, Bergeron looks forward to his grandmother’s meat pies and baked beans with maple syrup.
At Tuukka Rask’s home, “We eat ham,” said the Finnish goalie. “A lot of ham and fish. Some beef stew, maybe.” Back in Slovakia, Chara’s mother would cook carp. Traditionally, the fish is bought live and held for several days in the family bathtub, not unlike a New England lobster in a tank.
That’s a level of preparation Joakim Nordstrom tries to achieve with his traditional Swedish hams.
“It’s salted, not smoked,” he said. “We try to replicate it over here. It’s tough to do.” The brining process takes “a while, like 10 days,” he said. “I always forget until four or five days before.”
The hockey memories, though, are unforgettable.
In Stockholm, Nordstrom and his pals would play at the local rink, where his father worked. Around 10 p.m. on the 23rd — Swedes celebrate Christmas on the 24th — they would walk a half-mile with their skates and sticks, snacks and sodas, and the master key.
“We’d play through midnight,” he said. “It was a really good start to Christmas for us. We always took a good picture when the clock hit.”
. . .
In Neely’s youth, the frosty hours would blend together.
“Growing up in Canada, when you have the Christmas break, there are all kinds of tournaments at every level,” Neely said. “That’s all you did: play hockey or play street hockey. We had all kinds of time to play, and that’s what we did.”
Torey Krug, from Livonia, Mich., recalled “playing on the lakes until your hands and feet were about to fall off. Then we’d come inside and have some hot chocolate, and watch the GLI — the Great Lakes Invitational: Michigan State, U of M, Michigan Tech and always one invited team.
“That was pretty cool when I finally got the chance to play in the tournament. It felt like a dream come true at the time. . . . Joe Louis Arena, it was sold out and you’d have 20,000 people watching Michigan State-Michigan.”
For many Canadians, the World Junior Championship is on the TV. Jake DeBrusk still smiles when he thinks of 2009. He was a 13-year-old jumping around his Edmonton house when Jordan Eberle tied the semifinal against Russia with 5.4 seconds left, a goal that is part of modern Canadian sports lore.
These days, DeBrusk places bets with his American teammates. He’ll be rooting against potential future Bruins Curtis Hall and John Beecher, who will play for the US beginning Dec. 26, and Jakub Lauko (Czech Republic).
. . .
John Moore, whose family used to take trips from Winnetka, Ill., to watch him play tournament games in Toronto and Detroit, gets reflective this time of year.
“The whole family would pile in the car and go watch me play,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. I always think about it at the end of the year if I’m driving home, or when we drive through those areas where I used to play. We’re staying in five-star hotels and flying in on private planes. You pinch yourself, and you’re so appreciative of the sacrifices your parents and your siblings made for you to play hockey.
“Back then, staying in a hotel was the coolest thing ever. They’ve got a pool!”
Since Bergeron and his wife, Stephanie, became parents in 2015 — they have two sons and a daughter — Christmas has taken on a new meaning.
“You’re really thankful for everything you’ve been given, and you try to make your kids understand that as well,” he said. “We’re in a very lucky situation where we have food on the table and toys under the tree. I always share that with them.
“It means a lot. It brings back a lot of memories and the special times I’ve had growing up. I’m trying to do the same things for my kids. I want them to enjoy it like I did.”
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports