The Big Bad Bruins. The Flying Frenchmen. The Broad Street Bullies.
Some NHL teams, like the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers, are identified as much for who they have been as much as who they are.
And while teams cycle up and down in the standings over time, it is the Bruins who have kept to their time-honoured identity more so than any other team.
The Canadiens haven’t flown in some time. The Flyers were the last team in the NHL to register a fighting major last season.
Ditto the Toronto Maple Leafs. Borne from the tough-talking lessons of founder Conn Smythe, the Leafs can no longer beat anyone in the alleys. Nor do any of the current young Leafs have anyone in their locker room who can tell them how to. Those cords were cut a while ago.
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Meanwhile in Boston, lessons that Johnny Bucyk and Bobby Orr once taught are still being passed down through Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara, all still chasing down the Stanley Cup.
“You try to set that same example for the guys coming up,” said Marchand as his Bruins faced the St. Louis Blues in the final. “We have a culture in here that we want to continue to grow and instill into the young guys. They’ve bought in. They’re dialed in. You don’t have to pull guys in, they follow and they want to be part of the success. They want to grow as a group.”
There’s a line that goes unbroken back to Milt Schmidt, who coached Bucyk, who played with Orr as well as Terry O’Reilly, who played with Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, who was coached by O’Reilly and who played with Don Sweeney, who played with Glen Murray and Sean O’Donnell, who were both there at the start of Bergeron’s career. Sweeney is now the GM, and Neely is the team president.
“It’s what our team has always instilled in younger players, to play a certain way, mature a certain way,” Marchand said. “With the leadership group I had to follow, it was very easy to walk in their footsteps and try to be like them.”
The NHL certainly isn’t what it once was, not nearly as tough. Goonery is gone. Fighting is down remarkably. It’s hard to imagine how the Big Bad Bruins or the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s might fare in today’s NHL.
But these Bruins remain the toughest of teams, albeit tough for their time. They offer a mix of Hard hits, often targeted for a purpose, and some Marchand chicanery, hard-nosed hockey with the skill and speed needed for today’s game.
“When Cam Neely took over as president, he said, we have to play to the Bruins’ identity,” said Mike Milbury, a former Bruins player and coach who is now an analyst with NBC. “So that passed on to Sweeney, who had been a long-time Bruin. They know people in Boston want a club that’s down and dirty.
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“So they have made an effort to bring in some beefy players.”
The Leafs, by comparison, changed course on their tough-guy history. And let’s be fair: the old approach wasn’t working.
But the famous words credited to Smythe — “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice” — echoed loudly from Harold Ballard to Brian Burke and marked the type of hockey team the Leafs had been for most of their first 100 years.
From Bobby Baun and Tim Horton, through Tiger Williams and Wendel Clark, Darcy Tucker and Colton Orr, tough was part of the Leafs’ DNA. They have finally broken with that past. No fighters. No dump-and-chase hockey. It’s all about zone entries, stretch passes and getting pucks to high-danger scoring areas. It’s about skill and speed. And youth.
This is the direction GM Kyle Dubas believes in, the kind of team he is building.
Given the relative success of the Bruins — they eliminated the Leafs and are playing for the Cup, after all — being “big” and “bad” are not necessarily bad ideas for a hockey team.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock wouldn’t mind if his team gets bigger. There is evidence they will, at least on the wing with some sizable Russians coming aboard. After all, if you can have small, skilled and fast hockey players, you can have big, skilled and fast players, too.
Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran