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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why Hockey Has Gone Icey in Boston

There was a time long ago...before cable...where the local anchroman reigned supreme...just kidding. There actually was a time when hockey was king in Boston. Bolando takes a look at the decline of hockey's popularity in the Bean...

Why Hockey Has Gone Icey in Boston

This used to be called a "Hockey Town" -- When in fact -- that's a myth. New England has the best college hockey scene in the entire country. While places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakota's have great college hockey, New England has about 5 top ranked college team annually. Yet, they barely get a whiff of attention. In my travels to the Midwest, particularly Minnesota and Wisconsin, as I drive in my rental car, I listen to local sports radio. The University of Minnesota hockey got more radio time than the Minnesota Timberwolves and as much as the Minnesota Wild. Even the GIRL'S hockey gets attention. The most popular college hockey player in New England these past 20 years is Travis Roy sadly.

When's the last time WEEI spent more than 30 seconds on Boston College or Boston University hockey? These teams are in the National Championship every single year. WEEI or 98.5 talk about what fans wantt. And the local yokels don't care about college hockey. So let's not wear the "Hockey Town" badge because we don't deserve it.

When it comes to Boston sports fans -- two things are facts. Fans care about PROFESSIONAL sports, and Boston fans, really sports fans in general, cheer for winners.

Can you imagine a time when you could go to Fenway park on a Sunday afternoon at 11:30, buy tickets 20 rows up from the field in between home plate and 1st base?

What about going to the Celtics on opening night and having seats in the 4th row off the court, 10 rows in FRONT of Red Auerbach?

When I was a kid, my dad used to pick me up on Sunday's, we'd drive into Boston, and he'd buy tickets at the box office for 5 of us -- box seats -- behind the Red Sox dugout. They weren't pre-purchased and they were affordable. The year was 1983 -- Yastremski was gone -- Wade Boggs was a rookie. The starting shortstop was Glen Hoffman, and the 1st baseman was Dave Stapleton. And the local 9 finished 6th in AL East, also known as 2nd last place. In 1986, I barely remember going to a game -- if we did at all -- suddenly, the tickets weren't readily available nor were they as affordable.

In 1998, I went to Celtics opening night with 3 other friends. We had tickets -- 4th row from the court -- it was a strike-shortened season and the C's started Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Paul Pierce, Tony Battie, and Kenny Anderson. They went 19-31 that season -- and stunk.

I'd love to see me try to walk up to the box office on a Sunday afternoon and score 5 tickets for the Sox behind the dugout on the SAME day. I also wonder how hard it is to get Celtics tickets these days -- my boss has access to courtside seats right now -- like Donnie Wahlberg courtside seats. They're $1,000 a seat. We paid $100 back in 1998 for a crappy mess of a Celtics team.

So before you ask the question about why the Bruins aren't as popular as they once were, all you have to do is look at their success -- or lack thereof.

I enjoy hockey and if the C's were playing the same time as the B's, even though this may against the grain, I'm watching the B's as much, if not more than the C's. It's always been that way for me really. Throughout Boston, there was a time when the Bruins were as popular, if not more popular than the other big 3 sports.

So what's happened to the Bs? Why is it that hockey doesn't resonate anymore in the Bean?

The answer boils down to a few simple observations:

* Winning

* Star Attraction

* Ownership - I won't get into it with Ownership, because quite frankly -- it'll take too long and they're the same owners from the glory days anyways.

Even though the Bruins last won the cup in 1972, I was surprised to learn that they actually went to the Stanley Cup Finals a total of 5 times in the 70s. They went to the Semi-Finals a total of 7 times in 10 years during that stretch. 4 of those 7 seasons were without the great #4 from 1976-1979. That's success -- there's a reason why the term "bandwagon" exists. Because it's true. From 1967 to 1997, the Bruins were in the playoffs. It's a consecutive streak worthy of all-time status. They were a successful franchise when I was young. Even in the late 80's when the popularity spiked again -- take a look at the results -- 2 Stanley Cup births and 4 Semi-Final births in 5 years. It's no coincidence.

The other common denominator in the 70's team and the late 80's team was the player draw. 35 years later and Bobby Orr is still regarded as the greatest defenseman of all time. And until another defenseman can lead the LEAGUE in scoring, no one will ever come close. He's considered by some, mostly locals, as the greatest. But just to be lumped into the same category as Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe is an achievement unto itself. Go YouTube Bobby Orr -- there is some GREAT stuff out there. It's like he's on roller skates and everyone else is playing in sneakers. The 70's B's had star power and personality. From Bobby Orr, to Phil Esposito, to Don Cherry and Terry O'Reilly.

The same held true in the late 80's. For starters, the B's had the 2nd greatest defenseman of all time playing for them. Yes, of all time. Ray Bourque was really one of the greats. And while you can debate 2nd greatest, he has the numbers and career to make an argument. Bourque was awesome. While Bobby Orr may have been the Babe Ruth of his time, Ray Bourque was the Henry Aaron. Consistently producing, quietly showing up every night and doing the job to the highest level. Most points by a defenseman, Not bad for a guy, in his 21 seasons, played on the same team as a single 50 goal scorer only 3-4 times. By comparison, Paul Coffey played with 4 50 goal scorers in a single season multiple times - see Edmonton and Pittsburgh. But we all know the real star power in Boston during the 80's was Neely. Ladies loved him... he was out on the Boston nightlife scene... Goalies feared him -- the phrase "power forward" in the NHL was coined from his play. And goons backed down from him. He was Rick Middleton and Terry O'Reilly rolled up into one guy. Another star attraction in the late 80's for me personally was the color commentary of Derek Sanderson. This goes against my natural school of thought on how I don't like favorites calling my game. But it is more entertaining for me. Let me ask you this, would you tune into the Bruins more if Don Cherry were doing color commentary?

Over the last 12 seasons, the Bruins have MISSED the playoffs 5 times. They been one and done 5 times. They haven't reached the semi-finals since 1992. It's been 20 years since making it to the finals. And while Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron and Mark Savard are playing in the Olympics, are they "stars" in the NHL? Chara's the captain but he doesn't set the right tone for me. The last "star" was traded -- Joe Thornton and his chances never blossomed in Boston. So why should we feel some attachment to these guys?

So it's not because the game has changed... Some people like the rule changes

It's not because hockey popularity has decreased -- last I checked they have twice as many teams as they did 30 years ago.

Last year was exciting and disappointing at the same time. But for the first time in a while, you can look at the Bruins and really like what they're doing. Chiarelli, Neely in the front office. A young and talented team on the ice. And some good assets to improve the squad. Bergeron feels like he's been around forever and he's only 24. Milan Lucic is only about 21 years old and already has a "don't mess around with Jim" league reputation. And Savard is really good.

Win more, play better, and the prodigal fans will return.

Bolando is a contributor to the Bingo Bar Blog and long time journalist. He's made his bones covering the MVFFL as a beat writer and now enjoys a freelance career.

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