I was wondering today how a franchise can have such a pervasive identity that it trickles down and continues through generation after generation of players, coaches, owners, wins and losses. Mention the Montreal Canadiens, and what's the image that comes to mind? Despite years of futility and decades mired in a mucking, defensive style, the picture the name evokes is speed. Slick skating, smooth passing, offence...all accomplished at top speed. Flash and dash. Now think of the Bruins. What image do they bring to mind? Despite the brilliance of Bourque and Orr, it's that of a blue-collar team...a tough one that puts hard work and solid defence first.
Maybe it's because both franchises like to keep their heroes around to help build the next generation, and they naturally tend to recreate the kind of teams they knew as players. Bob Gainey is going to believe the team on which he played in the glory days of the 1970s is the prototype for success. Cam Neeley, Bruins vice president, will naturally push for the contruction of a tough, hardworking team like the ones he knew back in the day.
It's funny that those fundamental identities don't shift, even as the actual makeups of the teams do. And I think those identities are so deeply ingrained in the fans and players on those teams, they inevitably limit the possibilities in which the players believe. Boston's record when they're down 3-1 in a series...0-21. They've never even forced a seventh game. Montreal has made the 3-1 series deficit comeback once, but they've pushed a series to seven games on four other occasions. I've concluded it's because of the history of those teams and what the players believe they're capable of doing.
The Canadiens are a team of legend, mystery and success. Any non-Habs fan will tell you they get nervous when the playoffs come and the Habs start rolling. They'll say there's something magical about that team, and sometimes even when all the odds are against their success, it seems as though everything suddenly lines up just right to allow it to win. It's happened so often, the players believe it too. It's part of their red, white and blue identity. I think that's why the Bruins have never really surprised anyone. Their workaday image is one that relies on hard work, and by extension, pragmatism. They know the odds of coming back from a 3-1 series deficit, and with their honest assessment of the situation and innate practicality, they conclude they won't be able to do it. They say they will fight for every game and that they still have a chance in the series. But the words ring hollow and the sense of conviction they need to accomplish such a feat doesn't resonate from their assurances. Theirs is a grim passion...a nose-to-the-grindstone, go-down-like-men kind of dedication.
I think the Bruins will come out tonight and give the Canadiens everything they can handle. It's not in their franchise nature to mail it in, even when the odds are as long as they look to be right now. They might even pull off a win. But when it comes right down to it, history and the identity of their franchise has taught them they will ultimately lose the series and they don't believe there's anything they can do about it.
Jean Beliveau and other great Habs have called the phenomenon a "culture of winning." They believe young players, brought into a winning team will learn how to win and accept nothing else. They'll then pass it on to the next generation. With the lean years both the Canadiens and Bruins have weathered since Le Gros Bill last laced then up, you'd think the gap in time between then and now might be unbreachable, and that both teams might have gone on to forge new identities. But it seems some things transcend time.
Maybe this year the Bruins will prove this theory wrong. Maybe for once, their personal Lucy won't pull the football away just as they try to kick it through the uprights. But if they do pull off a miracle, they'll have to overcome generations of being the Boston Bruins first.