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On hockey

Hot times again on the ice

Thanks to Bruins, it’s back to being hockey hub

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 14, 2011

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The Celtics have folded, the Red Sox have developed a .500 phobia, and our New England climate, while not wintry, remains cold enough that hockey this morning doesn’t look like some snowman decked out in Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops at the backyard barbecue.

It’s mid-May and the Bruins are still in business. It’s fun, but it also feels a little odd.

This is the latest we’ve seen a Stanley Cup playoff series begin in the Hub since 1992, back when Andy Moog and Reggie Lemelin were still the puck-stoppers in residence and Joe Juneau, a fresh gift from Olympus, was sandwiched between the likes of Adam Oates and Ray Bourque at the top of the postseason scoring charts.

Everyone back in those days played with a wooden stick, some even still had a touch of leather in their skates, although Lyndon Byers probably had too much lead in his boots.

The third-round series with Pittsburgh in ’92 marked the fourth time in five seasons that the Bruins made it at least as far as the Eastern Conference finals. We were very much a hockey city then, though grousing incessantly that it had been, oh, 20 long, painful, gut-wrenching years without a Cup and that the Jacobs clan wouldn’t pay for that one missing piece, a sniper — why not Michel Goulet or maybe Luc Robitaille!? Please, a new Garden, what are you drinking? The old building on Causeway Street would stand forever.

That’s just so Boston, isn’t it? Four trips to the conference finals in five years, including a pair of trips to the Cup finals (’88 and ’90), and the focus wasn’t so much what we had, but what we lacked. We lived in a golden hockey era, even if it never came with a silvery Cup, a diamond ring, or a raucous romp around Government Center.

All of which makes right now all the more enjoyable. The Bruins are back to being something again, winning eight postseason games for the first time in nearly 20 years, and tonight opening up Round 3 of the playoffs with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the new Garden. Four more wins will deliver the Bruins to the finals against Vancouver or San Jose. The Canucks had two seasons in their history book when the Bruins last won the Cup, and San Jose was still a couple of decades away from painting a red line across the Cow Palace floor.

Maybe the Bruins don’t own the city again, and for all we know that’s not possible anymore, at least not in a Big Bad Bruins, Jesus-saves-but-Espo-scores-on-the-rebound kind of way. Back when Cheevers, Orr, Esposito and Hodge were the cocks of the Causeway walk, we weren’t what we are today.

When the Bruins won the Cup in ’72, the Red Sox were 54 years past their most recent World Series championship (with Babe Ruth still wearing Back Bay woolens) and the Patriots, despite their brand new, deluxe Schaefer Stadium, were still the same ol’, same ol’ stumblebum Patsies. There was, shall we say, a bit of a void in our championship consciousness when Orr and Co. stole the show.

It was much easier to own the town then, because the only champs were the Celtics, who, despite their many NBA titles (11 at that time) were still fairly new to the ’hood, at least in a ’hood where people pointed to the nearby North End and talked proudly about Paul Revere’s midnight ride. The Bruins had nearly an extra quarter-century’s legacy over the Celtics, and there were those in the crowd who still talked sentimentally about the night the Bruins beat the Canadiens at the Garden and the Kraut Line brothers — Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer, and Woody Dumart — were paraded around the Garden ice as heroes as they headed off to World War II.

A couple of decades down the road from the Bruins’ last trip to the conference finals, the debate now is whether we are a baseball or a football town. Since ’92, the Sox have their two World Series rings, the Patriots their three Super Bowls, and the Celtics their one and only without Larry. That’s a lot of winning, a lot of strutting and chest-beating. We are Championship Inc., and the Hub of the Universe is so much more sophisticated, so much more knowing, so spoiled.

Would we party like it was 1999 if the Bruins won the Cup this year? Absolutely. Baby Boomers, including many now gray-haired moms who named their sons Derek and Garnet, would flock to the edge of Comm. Ave., pulled there in a trance, as if they were about to see Shoeless Joe Jackson saunter out of an Iowa cornfield.

But we probably wouldn’t see, say, Shawn Thornton pour a pitcher of beer of Mayor Tom Menino’s head the way Johnny “Pie’’ McKenzie once showered Schlitz over Hizzoner Kevin White. Our conquering lads don’t show up at City Hall in Pontiac and Olds convertibles anymore. It’s all about a rolling flotilla of Duck Boats, professional paradedom. We are way too cool for spontaneity and innocence.

Right now, hockey is hip again, hipper than it’s ever been in the days since the Expressway went underground and the “El’’ was torn down.

In the hour or two leading up to tonight’s 8 o’clock puck drop, there will song and dance and all kinds of merriment on the empty lot where the old Garden once stood. Team president Cam Neely, the face of the franchise, will be seen on TV and heard on radio, prepared, as the prince of puck passion, to trade high-fives on the ninth floor with general manager Peter Chiarelli over every Boston goal. Long gone are the days of Give ’em Hell Harry Sinden, tie askew, peering down alone from his box.

Hockey fans will come streaming in, eager to sit in their $325 lower-bowl seats and sip bourbon or a fine merlot between periods. It ain’t your daddy’s beer-and-pizza Garden crowd anymore.

For the first time in two decades, it’s that time of year again. Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The days are a bit longer, the weather still on the cool side, and the Hub of Hockey is getting hot.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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