Bringing scale to Gretzky’s greatness

Hockey card of Wayne Gretzky

There is a limited amount of space on a hockey rink.

Your typical NHL rink runs 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. The international rink expands that width to an even 100. And back in the day, some of the older barns in the NHL — Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, Buffalo Memorial Auditorium — could run as small as 185 long or 83 wide. This is all to say that there’s only so much room to make so much happen.

Which is why, in those quiet moments, I like to pull up old games and watch Wayne Gretzky make a mockery of such limitations.

A favorite is to pull up games from the 1987 Canada Cup, where Canada and the U.S.S.R. linked up for a three-game series that gave us some of the best hockey the world has ever seen. It’s soothing, like a chill album on a late night. Just watching the flow and the speed and the skill, with the requisite determination and pride, all on display over about two hours, is both thrilling and meditative. And in the middle of nearly all of it is The Great One, spinning and twirling and finding open ice where there should be none. Continue reading


Basketball as a profession

Basketball card of Bill Russell

Are you a basketball player?”

“No I am not. Basketball is what I do; it’s not who I am. I’m a man, and basketball is my profession.”

I’ve seen variations on that quote by Bill Russell for years. Sometimes he’s responding directly to a fan, sometimes he tells a fan that he’s not a basketball player, to then be questioned by John Havlicek before Russell fully explained his reasoning behind the statement. He was a man. He was a human. Anything else was secondary.

And of course, the enigma here comes from the simple fact that the man saying it was, with the exception of one or two players to come later, maximum, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Or as he might prefer it, the greatest person who happened to partake in basketball as a job. Continue reading

Tuukka Rask’s quiet battle

Hockey card of Tuukka RaskI had my suspicions, but I thought Tuukka Rask’s “lower body” injury might be in his hip.

During the series with the Islanders, he didn’t quite look like himself. Where he was so deceptively smooth sliding from post to post, he seemed to be laboring, pushing off of one skate and needing two jerky motions to get from points A to B. He’d go into his butterfly prematurely, knowing he’d need to cheat that extra second to get down into position properly. This didn’t seem like a hamstring or his back, this seemed serious.

This is all armchair diagnosis, of course. He missed 18 games in the regular season with a mystery ailment, and as good as he looked at times in the playoffs, especially in the first series against Washington, he wasn’t himself. It finally came undone in the last two games against the Islanders. Now the Bruins are out, Rask is scheduled to have hip surgery, and won’t return to the ice until at least 2022.

It’s a bitter finale to what had been a swirling, surprising season for the Bruins, one shortened by the pandemic, their first year with Patrice Bergeron as captain, shoehorned into a makeshift Metropolitan division where they occasionally looked like world-beaters. In the end, the world beat back.

And with that inglorious ending may have gone one of the greater netminders to ever wear the spoked B. Continue reading

Blaine Lacher and the virtue of patience

95-donruss-blaine-lacherIn early 1995, I took my relatively new black Boston Bruins sweater to a sports store in New Bedford to get some gold numbers placed on it. In anticipation of this, I remember weighing whether to get Cam Neely’s no. 8 or Ray Bourque’s 77 on the back, or perhaps Adam Oates’ 12. I think even Don Sweeney’s 32 came into consideration.

That I walked in and — without hesitation — requested Blaine Lacher’s name and no. 31 be heat-sealed to this thing should attest to how ridiculously hot Lacher was at the start of his career.

Fresh off a national championship at Lake Superior State, Lacher entered a vacuum in the Bruins’ goalie depth, with just veteran Vincent Riendeau, who had served as Jon Casey’s backup, as a viable option. Casey had been allowed to walk as a free agent, while John Blue had been decamped to Providence in the AHL.

The NHL returned to play from the lockout in late January, and by the end of the month, Lacher was 3-1 with an absurd .958 save percentage and 0.98 goals against average. Lacher wound up appearing in 35 of the Bruins’ 48 games that season, plus all five starts in the playoffs. He finished fifth in the Calder Trophy voting (losing out to some guy who no one ever heard from again), and the Bruins had their goaltender for at least the next decade. Continue reading

Fourteen years to forever

Hockey card of Zdeno Chara

I’m fairly sure I was in my car, on the highway somewhere between Quincy and New Bedford, when I got a call from Mick Colageo and his message was simple, to-the-point and more than a little excited:

“They got Chara.”

If you’re not familiar, Mick is a hockey svengali and criminally underrated. He sees the game clearly, understands its nuances and can place it all in context, be it historical or present-day. If he was calling me and that excited, this was a tremendous moment.

I don’t know if even he could’ve seen what was to come: fourteen seasons as the captain of the Bruins, lifting the Stanley Cup and creating countless Paul Bunyan-esque folk tales along the way. Zdeno Chara has shown would-be goal scorers the door and sent anyone who dared to harass a Boston netminder into the fifth row. He’s blasted in goals from the blue line with terrifying velocity and, when given the chance, shown skill and poise with the puck. He’s logged hours and hours on the ice, extending shifts and keeping the wolves at bay when needed. He’s been the ultimate quiet leader, treating teammates young and old with respect and demonstrating exactly how much work was to be expected — and if anyone was ever able to hang in the gym longer than him, I never heard about it.

Through it all, there were moments where it felt like Chara would tower over the Boston blue line forever. If I had known even half of that was to come when he signed up, I’d have careened off the road. Continue reading