BOSTON — If it wasn’t clear to Claude Julien before he took the job in Boston, it quickly became obvious that the Bruins were struggling in the summer of 2007 — on the ice, and in the hearts of the local fans.
A month after he was hired, the Boston Celtics assembled the new Big Three that would lead the NBA’s most-decorated franchise to its record 17th championship. Come October, the Red Sox won the World Series for the second time in four seasons. And by the end of the year the Patriots, who had won three Super Bowls in the previous six years, would wrap up a 16-0 regular season.
The dominant pro franchise in the city for most of the century, the Bruins had become an afterthought.
But it was nothing they couldn’t cure with a Stanley Cup championship of their own.
“It’s great for us to fit in with the other teams in the city,” Julien said this month as his team prepared to defend its NHL title. “There’s a lot of attention paid to our team right now. When you drive around town, you see stickers on bumpers saying ‘Stanley Cup Champions.’ There’s a lot of people that root for you.”
Before Boston had the Impossible Dream, the Tuck Rule or the parquet floor, the Bruins owned this town.
Eddie Shore brought the Cup to Boston while Ted Williams was still a scrawny teenager in San Diego, and the Kraut Line won two more titles before the NBA opened shop. The Celtics’ 11 titles in 13 years couldn’t capture the city (though Carl Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown brought Red Sox nation to life in 1967).
In the ’60s, when the Bruins missed the playoffs eight straight years and the Celtics won eight consecutive championships, the hockey club still regularly outdrew its NBA counterpart — and the Red Sox, too. And when Bobby Orr led the Bruins to championships in 1970 and ’72, hockey rinks sprung up around New England in his name and sent their progeny to the NHL, the Olympics and to college programs around the country.
“This was and is a hockey town like no other in America,” said Richard Johnson, the curator of The Sports Museum of New England. “Boston is to hockey what Lubbock is to football, San Pedro de Macoris is to baseball, Sydney to rugby, Buenos Aires to futbol, Addis Ababa to marathoning.”
Now back among the elite — in the NHL and in their hometown — the Bruins will raise their sixth championship banner on Oct. 6, when they begin their title defense against the Philadelphia Flyers.
A year after an unprecedented postseason collapse in which they blew a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals — blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 7 — the Bruins eliminated archrival Montreal in seven games in the first round and then avenged their loss to the Flyers with a four-game sweep in the conference semis.
With a seven-game victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990. In a matchup of finesse vs. strength, stellar goaltending by Tim Thomas tipped the balance to Boston and the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven games.
“It’s a long road and when you actually do win, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Nathan Horton, a key contributor in the early rounds who was knocked out of the finals in Game 3 on a check by Aaron Rome. “Winning the Stanley Cup and watching everybody hold it. Just to be there with my teammates who care about each other so much, it feels good to do that.”
Thomas held the Canucks to eight goals in seven games, with his second shutout of the series and his fourth of the playoffs in the finale, to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. After the season, he also picked up his second Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender in the regular season.
Thomas is back, and by virtue of last year’s performance he is entrenched as the starter ahead of Tuukka Rask. Most of the other key players from last year’s team also return, including defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg and forwards David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic.
Tops among the missing are Mark Recchi, who retired at the age of 43, and Marc Savard, who is expected to miss the entire 2011-12 season because of post-concussion syndrome. Michael Ryder signed with Dallas as a free agent, and Tomas Kaberle, the puck-moving defenseman who was a disappointment in Boston, is also gone.
In place of Kaberle, the Bruins signed Joe Corvo, and they are hoping that forward Brad Marchand’s emergence as a scoring threat — and gadfly — will continue. Tyler Seguin, who showed flashes of the talent that led him to be picked second overall in the draft, is also expected to play more of a role.
Horton, who missed most of the finals with a concussion, returned to the ice in the middle of the exhibition season and said he has no limitations entering the season.
During the shortest offseason of their careers, the Bruins spent the summer waiting their turn with the Stanley Cup and sharing it with friends and family. It visited sick children in hospitals and backyard barbecues and small-town parades in Canada, the United States and Europe.
At their homes and in Boston, players were recognized more often and applauded when they went out in public.
Their goal now is to do the same thing next summer.
“You want to kind of keep the party going,” Lucic said. “But there is a time that you need to come back and start focusing on next season. Obviously, that point is now.”