Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Negative Perceptions of the "Big Bad Bruins" in Today's Game

The Bruins have always been a physical team - it is at the very core of the Bruins organization that blue-collar work ethic and tough, physical attitude were the strength of the team and all the successful Bruins teams in the past have lived up to those traits. Over the past season and into this season, I have heard fans and critics in some cases accusing the Bruins of taking their physicality to another level and using intimidating and bullying tactics in a way that is negative to the game and dangerous to opponents. I simply don't think that is true at all.

First of all, the Bruins team overall is well-rounded with a balance of physical intensity that drives every player on the ice and on the bench. Clean checks and appropriate expressions of physical force are generally what the Bruins exhibit in their game. All-out brawls in which every player in black and gold can and will drop the gloves - including both goaltenders - have occurred more than once, but those aren't the situations that people think of when they accuse the Bruins of being bullies. They are thinking of probably pinpointing specific instances (Brad Marchand repeatedly punching one of the Sedin's in the finals, right in front of a ref, and getting away with it, for example; more recently, Milan Lucic running over Ryan Miller in what was arguably intentional; most notoriously the incident with Chara and Pacioretty last year) and projecting those isolated incidents as the brand of physicality that the entire team pursues, when, in fact, the Bruins core group and strong leaders are the most honest in the game (think Patrice Bergeron, who should win the Selke any day now, and Shawn Thornton - although he is an "enforcer", what he brings to the bench and locker room in his personality and the way he works hard and honestly on the ice is what makes him a leader, and a good one at that).

Every player on the team sticks up for one another but can also defend themselves. The only players on the Bruins roster that I can think of that haven't fought in their careers yet are Tyler Seguin, Steven Kampfer, Jordan Caron, and maybe Rich Peverley or Daniel Paille. The depth of tough, skilled players that drop the gloves is a unique asset of the Bruins, and a fitting one when thinking of Cam Neely's glorious career. The team's ability to play aggressively and score goals while maintaining the central defensive style of play is why they are the Stanley Cup Champions, but that is easily distorted into bullies who are given an unfair advantage due to their dirty play by almost any hockey fan that isn't a Bruins fan.

I will be the first to admit that sometimes, certain Bruins players don't use the best judgement in their pursuit of physical play. Every team is guilty of "dirty" plays now and then. That's what penalties and suspensions are for. The Bruins have been lucky in avoiding suspensions in some cases (most recently Marchand's slew foot), but the line between clean physical play and outright dangerous behavior is pretty clear for the most part. Aside from my disagreement with Lucic's hit on Miller, it is easy to identify when a Bruins player does something "dirty" and it is more often than not some of the same players. Lucic has a reputation with referees for a reason; he is not a dirty player, but he is reckless sometimes in the way he carries out his actions. The recklessness usually results in 2-minute penalties, but, as was the case in the last game, taking four 2 minute minors in one game is just unacceptable and reflects an undisciplined attitude that is problematic on the individual scale, not on the entire team.

Marchand is an especially hated player because of his questionable actions in fulfilling his role as an obnoxious opponent who gets under your skin. He is exactly the player PK Subban is for the Canadiens, and countless other players are for their teams. You love them because they are effective in helping your team win, but you know if they were on another team, you'd hate them. And Marchand's recent slew footing is an example of how he sometimes takes that role a little too far. Sometimes I am unsure of Marchand's characteristics without the supporting cast of his teammates to keep him honest, but he is so good at scoring goals that it is easily forgivable (although I do acknowledge it). Marchand has been suspended once before (last season), and it was definitely warranted. Instances in which opposing team's fans perceive the Bruins as "classless" and "dirty" usually involve Marchand and only him. He certainly is not carrying out a team philosophy or getting help from his line mates if he goes too far (Bergeron is the most honest player in the game, and Seguin is too afraid to fight to do anything drastic). As Coach Julien has said in the past, with Marchand it's about finding balance between being an instigator and being a liability. Because he is still young, I have hope that he will evolve into a player with values that reflect that of the majority of the Bruins team.

Any other accusations of the Bruins being "dirty" probably involve Chara, which is always a useless argument because he is such an important, pivotal player that his presence is either loved or loathed. The incident with Pacioretty last season was, in my opinion, not intended to cause any true harm and the damage that did result was something that Chara truly did not think he could be capable of doing on purpose, and something that deeply effected him for the duration of the season. In other instances, many are quick to call him a bully or "dirty" simply because he is so huge, every act is instantly an act of aggression. 

Daniel Paille was suspended last year in an incident that his own teammate, Andrew Ference, expressed his discontent with. Many assume Ference is an asshole because he gave the finger to the Montreal fans during the playoffs, and I understand why Montreal fans think that and will continue to think that. But that doesn't mean he is a dishonest player.

The biggest bully on the Bruins is probably Tim Thomas in the way he defends his crease and plays with such passion that quickly erupts into anger in an instant. But Thomas will be the first to sit down and explain his reasoning for every single thing he does.

My main point that I've been trying to say through all this rambling is that the Bruins physical style of play is perceived as dirty and bullying by the entire team when one player does something questionable. Many are quick to assume the Bruins get away with being bullies because Gregory Campbell is Colin Campbell's son - a ridiculous argument that somehow still exists this season even when Colin Campbell has nothing to do with Shanahan's new system of suspensions. In reality, no real favoritism existed for the Bruins, and if it did, it certainly was not something we would have asked for or expected to receive, and Gregory Campbell would be the first to show it. 

My second point that I have been trying to reach is in regards to the label "bullies". Those who accuse the Bruins of being bullies in a menacing, derogatory way often seem to think that their team is innocent of such things, and that bullying in the NHL was only for goons and is being taken out of the game. If the Bruins own actions and history aren't enough to prove that they are not bullies in that sense, I wonder why it was okay for the Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s to accept the bully label and thrive under it, while being applauded and succeeding under the nickname "The Broad Street Bullies". I present evidence from the book The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL, written by Ross Bernstein with excerpts from several current and former players. From pages 44-45:

...a few decades ago one team intimidated like no other: the Philadelphia Flyers. Known as the Broad Street Bullies, they terrorized teams throghout the 1970s, winning a pair of Stanley Cups along the way. So mean and nasty were they that many opposing players were absolutely terrified to play them. They were the first team to use fear as a tactic, and it worked.

...They beat the hell out of their opponents and scared them into playing a style of hockey that they otherwise wouldn't play. The Bullies would come at their opponents in droves and pound them into submission....

...They were the ultimate band of brothers and they were lead by their fiery coach, Freddy Shero, who wasn't apologetic about his team's philosophy on winning. 
Adds Marty McSorley (pp. 45-46):
[they] were equal opportunity punishers. They would collectively beat the hell out of you. That was their strategy...The thing that was unique about Philly during those days was that you never just fought one of them, you fought all of them...it made a lot of guys nervous...and once your opponents are afraid in this business, the game is over before it even begins.
The role of the enforcer is ascribed to the entire team and it is effective in forming a team identity and doing what it takes to win. The "Big Bad Bruins" and the Broad Street Bullies had a lot in common because of how tough, but talented, they were. A member of the Broad Street Bullies back in the day, Dave Shultz says
I will never forget sitting in the penalty box and having Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito skate by and say, 'Hey, asshole, the boys are going to get you tonight.'...I had a lot of respect for them, though. We kept each other honest (pp. 44)
The Bruins as we know them today are still very much like the Big Bad Bruins, minus jumping into the stands to fight fans, but no other team seems to be quite as consistent with being effectively physical and intimidating while remaining on-task and focused on the system and play. In fact, the Bruins inability to be intimidated themselves was a big reason they were able to beat the Canucks and win the Stanley Cup. They were not psychologically intimidated, nor were they physically outmatched even when the Canucks threw their hardest checks for 60 minutes.

Physical play is in the DNA of the Bruins today as it was at their inception in 1924, when they were appropriately named the Bruins because it embodied the traits of a strong and ferocious team. They are skilled on so many levels and successful through grit and hard work rather than pure skill, which seems to be a concept hard for hockey fans to grasp given the nature of championship teams in the recent past.

In conclusion, I will quote 100 Things Bruins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die:
If you want to wear the spoked "B" on your chest and call the building on Causeway Street your home rink, you have to live up to certain expectations...rise to the physicality that not only makes opponents think twice before going to the net or into the concern but brings the Boston faithful out of their seats.

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