Much like Dan’s story, I grew up playing street hockey around the neighborhood. I used roller blades or sneakers, puck or ball and with whatever gear we could afford. I played pond hockey when I could and watched games on the rare occasion they were on in our strictly Red Sox household. On some level, I have always been a fan of the sport. In truth however, I only seriously started watching the Bruins around the 2006-08 years, which foreshadowed a growing near obsession with the local team and a love for the game of hockey. While I have some truly great memories from these years, it undeniably wasn’t until my adulthood years later; that I made the leap from a fan to a FAN™, with all the joy and heartbreak that so often follows.
It’s early 2011, and I have already been in the Middle East supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and later Operation New Dawn for half a year or so.
By now, the routines are very much established; when I wasn’t out on missions, I was occupied by various forms of busy work, “Soldiers training” or working out. Hot meals, when available and the occasional sand storm broke up the endless monotony, as few other things could. Readers who have deployed know the endless hours of “PMCSing” their vehicles in the blistering motor pool, perpetual formations and of course, lots and lots of cleaning any and everything.
”Hurry up and wait” is a very real part of the military lifestyle, whether you are stateside or deployed and this deployment was no different. One of the few bright spots was the 2010-2011 Bruins season and subsequent Cup run. Being a National Guard unit, primarily made up of New Englanders, gave this a special feel. Even before the first game was played, the 2010-2011 season seemed different. Cam Neely had been named the 8th Team President in Bruins history and the Bruins had a new, verified 30 goal man™ in one Nathan Horton. This was going to be a good year.
By the time the calendar flipped to 2011, the Bruins were on a roll, led largely by Tim Thomas and fan favorite Milan “Looch” Lucic. The Playoffs seemed like an inevitability.
The Middle East is 7 hours ahead of my home state of New Hampshire. This of course made communication home to family and friends difficult, but I mention it because it also meant most Bruins broadcasts started around 2 or 3AM local time. It takes a dedicated fan to wake up, already on limited sleep, to catch a Bruins game in the MWR (Morale, Welfare & Recreation) tent, especially before a long mission or training day ahead. Nonetheless, that was our routine, as the Bruins finished out the season, clinching both a playoff spot and the Northeast Division title.
Fans of the sport will tell you there is nothing like playoff hockey, and even the non hockey sports fan would be hard pressed to disagree. The combination of size and speed, skill and grit reach their apex during the annual Stanley Cup Finals push. For various reasons, correctly or incorrectly, hockey is a sport that is often compared to combat, and one that is closely followed by many in the Veteran community. Some of you might even remember the ‘13 Bruins team proudly wearing a customized Army uniform, noticeably sporting a Ranger Tab.
There were never enough chairs, or for that matter even standing room in the tiny MWR tent, but we all made it work, sharing in the combined agony and elation of Our Teams battles. Anyone was welcome to join, and more than a few new hockey fans were born in those glorious months. All too often we scared the sleeping MWR attendant on duty with our ecstatic goal celebrations or despondent curses. We were a brotherhood built on many foundations, who also shared a love of our hometown Bruins. Years later I can freely say, there are few things in life as rewarding as sharing a common joy like watching your team among brothers.
My lasting image was watching the game clock tick down, Doc’s storied voice echoing a fan’s famous line “We didn’t lose to the British and we aren’t going to lose to British Columbia” followed shortly after by the blessed words:
“For the first time in 39 years, the Boston Bruins have won the Stanley Cup!”
On our screen gloves and helmets fly indiscriminately through the air, our own cheers hard to distinguish from those coming from the speakers. We watched every scene, soaking in each cheer and every venomous boo for a roundly despised Gary Bettman. We high fived and fist pumped as we watched every trophy celebration and Cup raising. Feeling chills watching the Captain raise our trophy, for our City, our hometowns. Goosebumps as it passed to the veteran, Recchi, closing out his storied career. We all shared the pure joy on a young Patrice Bergeron’s face, and the look of untarnished pride so clearly visible on a well-traveled Tim Thomas’s face.
Finally, the Cup was back where it belonged.
One by one, we each left the comfort of that all too familiar tent, elated and in disbelief. The sun was rising outside and it was time for breakfast, the familiar routine ahead of us, but on that day we were Champions, and brothers.
In all the years since, I can honestly tell you, I have never seen a more enthusiastic union of hockey fans than the exhausted and often random fraternity of Soldiers that made up our little Bruins brotherhood. In truth even the still painful 2013 Finals run lacked that shared sense of communal joy and heartbreak, a feeling I know cannot be replicated no matter how many seasons or Duck boat parades wind their way through the metaphoric heart of our beloved New England.
To me, being a fan will forever mean chasing that memory, that feeling of a shared bond and love for our team and collective hometowns and the pride we all felt that sacred moment the Cup returned to its rightful place in the storied Hub of Hockey.