Eddie Shore and Charlie Sands, 'consulting' with an official. (ca. 1930s) - Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection
Wherein context is everything.
History isn't about recounting one specific incident and expecting it to make sense without any sort of context or framework. Without those things, an event is simply an event -- whatever meaning it holds is derived in large part from all the other events, past and future, that are connected to it through any number of linkages. Sports, and hockey, are no exception to that rule.
In particular, a single game is never simply just a game, devoid of context or historical meaning. Take the Superbowl, for example -- entire narratives are created around the personalities and teams involved in that matchup. No built in long-standing rivalry between the two teams? No worries -- any number of stories about the players' relationships, the coaches, and the historical successes/failures of the respective teams can be woven together to create a context that gives enhanced gravity to the event.
Hockey has its own share of narrative creation -- if ‘Rivalry Wednesday' has taught us anything, it's that if you work hard enough, you can create a story about any two teams playing a single game, even if that story isn't necessarily organic.The production and broadcast staff covering a given matchup work hard to give that game meaning beyond simply the two points in the standings. While the creation of a framework for a given game might sometimes feel forced, it is true that no game exists outside of a history of other games played between two teams, or independent of potential future playoff races.
One single game. The Bruins have played literally thousands of such single games over the last 89 years. Some -- game sevens in the playoffs, for example -- come pre-loaded with emotion and narrative context. Others are more run of the mill, in the sense that nothing about the season lives or dies for either team on the result of the game. In either case, however, the historical context is what gives the game its extra bit of intrigue, and serves to whip fans up into a pre-match frenzy.
An example for you, one that's eighty years in the making: March 20th, 1933. One day before the end of the National Hockey League's regular season. The Bruins had secured a place in the playoffs, having totaled 56 points on the season to that point. The had one final game to play, on March 21st -- an always intense matchup against the New York Rangers. The Rangers were also in the playoffs at that point in the season, and so neither team was necessarily playing for the sort of stakes they are a few weeks before the end of the season.
There is more to the story, of course -- isn't there always. At 56 points, the Bruins were two points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the lead in the American Division. In the 1932-33 season, winning the division got you a bye in the first round of the playoffs - an automatic pass through to the semi-finals. Detroit's 58 points on March 20 of that year gave them the lead, but the Bruins could take the division championship and the Prince of Wales Cup with a win over the Rangers -- the Bs held the tie-breaker over Detroit (number of goals scored on the season). As one write opined, this matchup had the makings of an "all important one for the Bruins."
A win would also determine the Bruins' playoff opponents; if they secured the division championship, they would face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semi-final round. Toronto -- coming off a Stanley Cup championship -- would seem to be a favorable matchup for the Bs (as pundits reported ecstatically):
The Bruins this year have had more success against Toronto than any of the other teams in the circuit...the Bruins, on the season's record, have a better chance of beating the Maple Leafs than Detroit or New York. A short while ago they humbled Toronto, 6 to 2, on the Canadian sextet's ice and have won all three games at the Garden this season.
There's yet more, though. The Bruins had gone undefeated in the previous 9 games -- a late season surge that had them just ahead of the Rangers and Maple Leafs in points and "playing their best hockey of the season." That streak involved beating or tying all but one of their possible playoff opponents, giving the Bruins a measure of confidence heading into not only the playoffs, but also into that final game against the Rangers.
Beyond that, even, was the narrative that came along with any Rangers-Bruins game in the 1920s and 1930s. As the Globe reported the day before the game, "a Bruins'-Rangers' game at any time in the season is one of the most attractive hockey offerings. The setting for tomorrow night's context could not have been more alluringly worked out by a motion picture director."
The game had it all, then -- some stakes, rivalry, playoff consequences, the promise of a team playing extremely well wrapping up its season going undefeated in its final 10 games. On one level, it was simply a game, one in 48 regular season games the Bruins would play that year. But context means that though any team can win any given game on any given day, they do so within a framework of historical influences and future implications.
On March 22, a newspaper report opened with the only piece of information that mattered after the game had been played: "The Boston Bruins are champions of the National Hockey League's American Division." The rest of the story lurked in later paragraphs -- the game earned them a series against the Leafs, the rivalry with the Rangers remained feisty -- but the triumph of winning the division was paramount.
The Bruins would go on to face the Leafs in the semi-finals -- but that's another story, and another narrative, for another day. That series had its own contextual framework, its own history, and its own consequences. Eighty years ago today, fans, writers, and players prepared for one single game -- a game imbued with layers of meaning by past events and implications for the future. An "all important" game, indeed.