OTBH: Tussling Since the Start

Art Ross and the boys.

A rumination on the Boston Bruins' first ever fisticuffs

Tussle:
v. To struggle roughly; scuffle

Olde Timey Boston Hockey has before considered the ways that myth-making can impact what we remember and what we erase when we talk about the origins of a team. As fans, we often create narratives surrounding the team's firsts -- the first game, the first win, the first Stanley Cup -- and those narratives often leave out various elements of the story, for a whole host of reasons. At the same time, one of the things that most fanbases identify most with when it comes to their squad are the ‘intangibles' -- those characteristics that define a group of players and, in some respects, the fans themselves. The blending of selectively remembered ‘firsts' and an idea of team identity is at the heart of most sports mythologies.

The Bruins have, since their very beginnings, played what we could safely call a ‘rough-and-tumble' style of hockey. The players that have entered into the echelons of deities within the fanbase have at their best been both skilled and tough -- your Schmidts, your Neeleys, and your Lucics (last night notwithstanding), for example. In Boston, the characteristics that infuse the history of the team are flavored with this particular brand of skilled toughness.

It would stand to reason, then, that we as fans would pay particular attention to the ‘firsts' associated with a characteristic so closely associated with the Black and Gold. After all, it's not unreasonable to think that the character of a team must start somewhere, with a player or a game or a particular event. When I stopped to think about what sort of event that might be, however, I drew a blank.

When *did* the Bruins begin to take on this persona of Big and Bad? When did the Bs' willingness to tussle and score in equal measure become a foundational aspect of the team's makeup?

While the heyday of the Big Bad Bruins might well be the 1970s (though a case can certainly be made for other eras, as well), the foundations of the persona were laid much earlier. I've mentioned before that the olde timey Bruins were known to deliver both an ass-whupping on the scoreboard as well as an ass-whupping in a brawl. But even that historic, bench-clearing Christmas evening wasn't the moment that solidified this notion of the badass Black and Gold -- they brought that already-established rep with them into that game. The actual origin of the image goes even further back, all the way to the beginning, and the ever truculent Art Ross.

Ross (as you all know) was brought in by Charles Adams after Adams had secured rights to a Boston NHL franchise. According to Adams, he selected Ross to be the GM and coach because he represented "all that is high class in hockey," going on to assert that "Boston fans will like Art Ross." Ross was experienced as both a player and a coach, and the closest thing the sport of professional hockey had to a superstar. He would provide the Bruins with both knowhow and determination -- but perhaps most importantly for our discussion today, he also provided a desire to ice a very particular kind of team, one that could go head to head with the rest of the league in talent, but also in toughness.

What Art Ross wanted, as it turns out, Art Ross got. The early years of the Boston Bruins were rife with players that fit this mold of ‘skilled and also badass'. One December 1925 newspaper report summed it up best when describing Boston's two first line defensemen, Sprague Cleghorn and Lionel Hitchman: "They fear no one, and are not afraid to ‘step in to them,' which Ross likes in a player."

(Sidenote: I'm totally naming my firstborn Sprague.)

Before the first professional game the Bruins ever played, in fact, the idea that this Boston hockey team would be gritty and truculent was firmly embedded in the larger mythos that was in the process of being created. In advance of that first game against the Montreal Maroons, the Globe reported that Ross felt he had achieved his goal of recruiting players with skill and sandpaper, and that "the men he has gathered under his wing will be able to give the [best] combinations in the league a real tussle."

And tussle, they did. I began this piece by talking about ‘firsts,' and how they play such an important role in the origin story of a sports franchise. For a team that was so clearly defined from the beginning as one that would rough you up both physically and on the scoresheet, there's a curious lacuna in the Bruins' origin story when it comes to firsts: when did these players, so willing to give anyone in the league a ‘real tussle,' actually engage in their very first hockey fight?

As it happens, the answer is: that very first game. Here's what the Globe has to say about that opening on contest on December 2 (the day after the Bruins' first pro game): "It was a real struggle, and [Montreal winger] ‘Punch' Broadbent, an old experienced player, and Mitchell of the home team livened things up in the last minute of play by winding their arms around each other's heads and indulging in a real battle. The two players were chased from the surface, but no harm was done." And there you have it -- the Boston Bruins' very first fight.

The circumstances that brought on the tussle are telling, as well. Boston was up by a goal at the end of the third, having outplayed a less conditioned Maroon squad. The Boston defense had put up a wall (dreamy sigh), and frustration set it: "so strenuously did the Montreal team try to overcome the handicaps that penalties came thick and fast." So, to sum up: Boston, in its inaugural game, played stingy defense, scored timely goals, and frustrated the opposing team into reacting physically, leading to an altercation that the Bruins were more than capable of handling. Ok, then.

Interestingly, for a happening that seems to fit in so well with the overall image of the Bruins, past and present, this moment hasn't made it into the pantheon of foundational events that have served to define the franchise. What makes it into the historical narrative about a team is determined by any number of factors, many of them relating to the societal expectations and mores of a given time period. In this case, however, I suspect it's something else altogether. Ross worked hard to imbue his team with a certain gritty (but skilled) persona. It was in place before that first fight, before the game was even played. That the Bruins should get physical in that first game is no surprise, but neither is the lack of importance placed on the scuffle as a historic ‘first.' Here, I would guess, it's a case of ‘thus it is, thus it has always been, thus it will always be': there's nothing surprising or notable about this first tussle because it represented exactly who the Bruins intrinsically were (according to Ross).

We have no need to remember the first time a Boston player dropped the gloves, much like we have no need to know the first body-check. It was such a given that the Bruins would play that kind of physical game that it was simply blended into the fabric of the team's persona. Who needs to commemorate a first like that when that aspect of the origin story -- that the Bruins would combine talent with being so effing tough to play -- is one we all already know.

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