x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Bruins muscle in on the action

The Bruins took the final two games in a fashion that old-school Canadian hockey enthusiasts would grudgingly concede was preferable: by being the tougher team.

Patrice Bergeron and the Bruins kept Alex Burrows and the Canucks in check.
Patrice Bergeron and the Bruins kept Alex Burrows and the Canucks in check.

As profoundly as cricket resonates in India or football does in Brazil, ice hockey may mean even more to Canada.

The game is the common denominator of a country divided along linguistic and ethnic lines and caught in a perpetual struggle to carve out an identity distinct, to the rest of the world, from the United States, next door. Stitching red maple leaves on tourist backpacks may not be enough.

Ice hockey seems to encapsulate what many Canadians would like you to know about them. They believe in sportsmanship, athleticism, humility and teamwork, but they also are capable of knocking out your teeth - though they are likely to apologise for your dental emergency later, with the greatest sincerity, in the handshake line.

As the ultimate totem of the national game, the Stanley Cup carries particular significance in the Great White North. To hold it over your head after winning a National Hockey League championship is the goal, and even if a team from the US, the Bruins of Boston, were doing the lifting on Wednesday night, Canadians could take solace in the fact that 16 of the 22 members of the Bruins hailed from within their borders.

The losing team, the Vancouver Canucks, had two chances to secure the cup for a Canada-based team for the first time since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens won it, but the Bruins took the final two games of the series 5-2 and 4-0, and did it in a fashion that old-school Canadian hockey enthusiasts would grudgingly concede was preferable: by being the tougher team.

It was the Canucks who were fixed as goons, in the minds of casual hockey fans, early in the finals. In Game 1, Vancouver's Alex Burrows bit the fingers of Patrice Bergeron, and in Game 3 the defenceman Aaron Rome's late hit knocked out the Bruins Nathan Horton. Both incidents got significant attention and the latter ended the seasons of both Rome (suspension) and Horton (concussion).

But over the length of the series, it was the Bruins who were the stronger and more physical team and the Canucks who preferred the elegant, low-contact European style of play, as embodied by the Swedish Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, goal-creating machines who avoid physical confrontation.

The "will versus skill" meme has been playing out in world hockey for at least 40 years, going back to the Summit Series of 1972, when Canadian dominance was challenged by the supremely technical stars of the old Soviet Union, players who seemed to believe the game was only about skating, passing and scoring. The Canadian response was to get rough. It worked then, and it works still.

While Canadian players certainly have skill, their edge these days is their willingness to mix it up on the ice.

After the final game in the Stanley Cup finals, Alain Vigneault, the Canucks coach, complained that Boston had won by "being physical, hitting after the whistle, and it starts to wear you down".

Toughness was the best card the Bruins had to play against a Vancouver team that led the NHL in goals and points during the regular season, and it was not as if it was unnatural behaviour for Boston; they had half-a-dozen players with more penalty minutes this season than the Canucks' biggest scofflaw, Rafi Torres, who logged 78. Shawn Thornton, for example, had 122 minutes in the penalty box.

The Bruins also boasted a very European but very physical pair of defenders in the Slovakian Zdeno Chara and the German Dennis Seidenberg. If they hadn't knocked the Canucks off the puck in the approach to the net, the last line of defence, the edgy goaltender Tim Thomas, was there to catch every weak shot and also get in some thwacks to the shins when the referee wasn't looking.

Even on their home ice, the Canucks looked a beaten team by the end of the first period, as Boston led 1-0. They seemed dispirited by their inability to find open ice, and their goalie, the oft-criticised Roberto Luongo, seemed indecisive and was about to leak another three goals. The Sedin twins would again fail to score, leaving the series with three goals between them, or not nearly enough to win a championship.

It was the first Stanley Cup championship for Boston since 1972, and represented yet another significant sports triumph in what has been a golden decade for the city. Since 2002, Boston teams have won seven championships in the four big North American sports: three in American football, two in baseball, one each in basketball and hockey.

It may seem an embarrassment of riches, but perhaps it is proper, considering that perhaps only Chicago is a worthy rival, on the continent, to Boston as a sports-mad city.

The victory also will resound in the Canadian hometowns of Boston's players. The gap-toothed winger Michael Ryder, one of Boston's championship-winning tough guys, was asked if he had a message for the folks back in Bonavista, Newfoundland, population 3,764.

Said Ryder: "Yes, sir! Whooo!"