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OTBH: The Stories We Tell

On the Bruins, the Penguins, and shared histories.

Jarome, meet Johnny. Johnny, meet Jarome.
Jarome, meet Johnny. Johnny, meet Jarome.

Gather ‘round, my hockey friends, for it's story time here at OTBH.

Once upon a time, many years ago, a man decided he wanted to start a professional hockey team. He was in a city where hockey had a history, where amateurs and colleges had played the sport for years, and he felt the ground was fertile enough to build something lasting. All the city needed was a champion, someone willing to rally others to the cause. This man had the money and connections and the willingness to make his a dream a reality, and so he gathered other men of means, influence, and experience to help him, and eventually a new NHL franchise was born.

Ah, but what to name the brand-new team? One could, I suppose, harken back to those other teams that had played in the city before, be they amateur or collegiate. But this was a new team, a team with a fresh slate, one that was going to make its own, unique impact on the city. A new name was needed, one that resonated with the people of the city, those who were not yet fans but hopefully, hopefully would become the bedrock upon which successful sports teams rest.

And what better way to begin the process of bringing fans, young and old, into the fold than by holding a public contest to name the team. People could submit their best, most creative ideas for what to name the franchise, and from the group a name would finally be chosen. From the start, then, the team and the people of the city that held it would be bound together in one of the most basic, primal, elemental acts: the act of naming.

And so it was: the contest was held, and a name (and winner of the contest) selected. A team was born, and at the same time, a fanbase. Through ups and downs, the two would be connected--through terrible years and glorious ones, through wrenching defeats and the hoisting of Lord Stanley's Cup. Happily ever after is in itself a fairy-tale, but the relationship between the team and its fans (while not always perfect) has been a lasting one, a worthy ending to a story as rich as this one.

* * *

It's a nice story, to be sure. Told in its entirety, it would have the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy (or comedy: depends on the season/era). As with all stories, though, it is rife with missing pieces and elisions that smooth the narrative and make it bite-sized--349 words, to be exact. As we have seen over and over, history is as much what isn't said as what is in stories such as this one.

The story above is entirely truthful, but it's not the entire truth. It's also a shared story. People who've been kicking around OTBH or know something about the Bruins' early history can point to the above tale and say ‘yes, I recognize my team's origin story.' And you'd be right, it is the (incomplete, as we now know) story of the birth of the Bruins name.

It's also, however, the story of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

* * *

When we talk about the history between the Bruins and the Penguins, we often focus on the terrible (Ulf and Cam, Savard and Cooke), the unexpected (Jarome Iginla), and the hard-fought battles that had a bit of both (playoffs, 1991-1992, y'all). Hockey media everywhere will be digging up the past events that make these two teams rivals--much of it will be a tad forced, but some will reflect legitimate hate and competition between the two teams.

What no one is likely to think to talk about is the startling similarity in the origins of the two teams, though said beginnings were separated by more than 40 years. Charles Adams was determined to bring a franchise to Boston, though he owned a chain of grocery stores and was not heavily involved in hockey; State Senator Jack McGregor rallied the influence and financial support of prominent Pittsburghers to aid his quest to secure an expansion team for the city. In both cases, the work of a group of people, determined to bring hockey to a new locale, reached out into the community and offered people to opportunity to participate in the origins of the team. In Pittsburgh, a newspaper contest was held: the winner, Emily Roberts, became the first season ticket holder. In Boston, the story goes that a similar contest was held, with the bear being the winning animal image, which was then transformed into the name we know and love, Bruin (according to some, manager Art Ross was responsible for that transformation.)

* * *

The Pens and B's also share another piece of history. As I've said, the story above is truthful, as far as it goes. It makes no mention, though, of Art Ross's secretary, Bessie Moss, and how it was she who took the concept of a bear and turned it into the name 'Bruins.' Her name is all but forgotten--better remembered is Carol McGregor's, the woman ultimately responsible for giving the Penguins their name. If you google 'origin pittsburgh penguins name' you will find anecdotes about Carol, and the role she played as wife of one the owners of the team (the abovementions Senator McGregor), taking the nickname of the Civic arena--the Igloo-- and suggesting the name 'Penguins.' She hasn't been erased the way Bessie Moss has, to be sure, but I wonder how many Pens fans could produce her name if asked.

Differences between Bessie Moss and Carol McGregor abound, course--I don't want to draw false equivalencies. One woman was a secretary, whose involvement in the naming of the Boston Bruins has been made indistinct by both the passage of time and by a bunch of other socio-cultural factors (gender, class, et cetera). Carol McGregor, on the other hand, has been remembered more clearly, as the wife of one of the founders of the franchise, a woman of means and relative influence. The 40 years that separate the two acts of naming also contribute to the differences in their stories.

Nonetheless, both women had their contributions to the club tempered by a story about public contests that allowed an initial fan investment in their respective nascent franchises. In both cases, the public was (at least at first) given credit for coming up with a name that was in fact suggested by women closely associated with the organization. In both cases, the initial creation of a relationship between team and fanbase was given utmost importance: credit where credit was due took a back seat to the building of those ties to the community, and to the creation of an origin story about the team.

* * *

We all tell stories, all of us, every day, especially in pieces like this. Tonight, a whole host of different stories will be told about the Bruins and the Penguins, about their history and their present. This was just one more story, maybe one that adds a bit more context and flavor to the ones you already know--but it's certainly not the entire story. When it comes to history, even (especially) sports history, it almost never is.