As I watched Game Four of the Stanley Cup Finals, I realized the Boston Bruins would be very fitting NHL champions this year. A league champion should be the team that best exemplifies the qualities of the game as it exists in a particular season. This year, the Bruins are that team.
Let's take a look at the most important stories in the league this year. Perhaps the most significant of those has been the devastating hits to the head sustained by so many players, including superstar Sidney Crosby. The hit that galvanized the entire hockey world with the single demand to "DO something," however, happened when Zdeno Chara crushed Max Pacioretty into a stanchion and broke his neck. Nobody who watched that game will forget the young Canadien lying motionless on the ice, not knowing if he would play hockey again, or even live. The timing of it, with the Bruins getting creamed by the Canadiens and Chara having developed a dislike of Pacioretty to go with his frustration at losing that game, smacked of intent to "teach the guy a lesson." Of course, the hit, while bringing the debate on head shots to a boil, cost Pacioretty the remainder of his season and quite likely helped the Bruins win their first-round series.
Following from that was the second-most important NHL story of the year. The league's discipline policy has always been vague and inconsistent at best, but the decision to let Chara go without a single game's suspension set off a level of public outrage the NHL brass was obviously not anticipating. The conflict of interest in having the father of a player acting as league disciplinarian began to take on a level of rather ominous significance. In that sense, the Bruins were the poster team for what's wrong with NHL discipline.
I talked to a former NHL player yesterday who told me he's not impressed with the way so many current players are acting like they're still in minor hockey. The constant pushing after the whistle by some teams, the childish taunting of opponents and the public bitching about other players is becoming embarrassing. Prominent examples of such behaviour have been on public display during these playoffs. The Bruins have become notorious for initiating post-whistle garbage in every game they've played. We saw it during the season as they facewashed and crosschecked their way to the Northeast division title, and it's been even more noticable during the post-season. Even goalie Tim Thomas is in on the act, throwing himself at opponents in his crease. (Which, incidentally is a penalty, but was twice uncalled in the playoffs.)
The taunting in the Finals, which respected pros have called ridiculous, has been the epitome of sore winning. There's nothing quite as unpalatable in the world of sports as a team or player that can't win with grace. Watching Max Lapierre tease Patrice Bergeron by shoving his fingers in the biting victim's face was bad enough. Seeing Mark Recchi and Milan Lucic duplicate the gesture in the next game with the gleeful meanness born of gloating was stomach-turning. Couple that with classy gestures like Andrew Ference's one-finger salute to the Bell Centre crowd after a Bruins win, and Nathan Horton's squirting a fan with water before flinging the bottle at him in the stands, and the poor sportsmanship displayed during these playoffs has reached a new low.
Then there's the bitching. Players like Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi complaining about the Canadiens for being a team of divers is more than a little hypocritical. Marchand's got two diving penalties in these playoffs and has attempted the manouver many more times than he's been caught. Recchi's dismissal of the seriousness of Max Pacioretty's injury in the media before the playoffs began revealed a bit of the character of these Bruins. Tim Thomas revealed a bit more when he had an opportunity to be gracious following his team's defeat of the Canadiens. When asked about the play of Habs rookie P.K.Subban, Thomas could have taken the high road and said something non-committal. Instead, he chose to sink as low as possible and call the kid a "travesty" to hockey.
I've been disillusioned with the NHL since the league's lack of intestinal fortitude both led to the Pacioretty hit and failed to levy justice for it. The playoffs have served to underline a lot of the inherent problems in the NHL right now, not least by presenting the Bruins as a Stanley Cup finalist. Should the Bs win, they'd certainly be fitting champions. After all, no team exhibits the cheap shots, public whining and poor sportsmanship polluting the league better than the Bruins.
*Post Script: I neglected to mention a side effect of a team like the Bruins doing well. The attitude and behaviour rubs off on those who follow the team, especially if those fans have been long deprived of any kind of notable success. Look no further than the comments section below for an example of such behaviour, better than anything I could describe. Naturally, it's posted by "anonymous."