The players—almost 400 of them by now—mostly have been actors playing two sets of classic roles. Greek tragedy on the Boston stage. Romantic drama in Montreal.
The Canadiens always have worn the top hats and lived in the house on the hill. Superior. Grand. Elegant. How many NHL teams have been called elegant? How many players? The elegant Canadiens. Their fans arrive at the Forum, that basilica of perspiration on St. Catherine Street, dressed in coats and ties, for a night of opera on ice, penalty announcements in two languages, s'il vous plaît. The Montreal teams have been built on grace and speed, continental cuteness. The Flying Frenchmen. Drawing-room hockey, served on a white linen tablecloth. Elegant.
The Bruins have always been the poor relations, a collection of Al Capp characters, woofing and scratching and emerging from that Dogpatch home on top of a train station. Elegance? Punch you in the mouth, you say that again. The Bruins have reveled in their bowling-shirt earthiness. Hockey was a hard-hat job for them long before the introduction of the helmet. They play in the smallest rink in the NHL and have tailored their team and dispositions to fit this environment as surely as the Red Sox have looked for right-handed hoppers to hit baseballs over the leftfield wall at Fenway Park. Want to play at Boston Garden? Bring your elbows.
"We will slow the Canadiens down," each successive voice has said in the coach's tiny office at the Garden. "We'll give them the body and see how they like it. You can't fly when someone double-parks you against the wall. They don't like the physical stuff. Never have."
Eighteen series. The Canadiens have won 69 games. The Bruins have won 22. Hit those Habitants. Slow them down. Make them timid. Zero for 18.
"You can't hit what you can't catch," the same voices have said at the end in the coach's office. "You have to give those guys credit. They're good."
The lesson is always forgotten as soon as it's learned. One cold shower and the Bruins have been back working on the speed bag. Always there has been that night-light of hope, the idea that maybe this year will be different. And always there has been that letdown. No change.
"The year we should have won was 1971," Cusick says. "We were better. Much better. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and all of those people. We won the first game 3-1, then were ahead 5-1 midway through the second. I remember doing interviews between periods about possible opponents in the next round. That was how certain it was. Then Montreal started scoring goals and won the game 7-5. And Dryden was a rookie and he made some big saves and...still we should have won.
"And then 1979. Too many men on the ice. That was the other one. That was the one no one will ever forget."
Six men on the ice. Sixty men on the ice. How many men on the ice? The story has become legend, the number swollen, in less than a decade, the highlight (lowlight) of the entire streak, stowed in the same sad Boston footlocker as the ground ball that rolled through Bill Buckner's legs and the home run that the Yankees' Bucky Dent hit into the screen on a fall afternoon. Who was the extra man on the ice? Terry O'Reilly? Mike Milbury? Stan Jonathan? Don Marcotte? All of the above? Any of the above? Sometimes, in the retelling, it seems as if there were a brass band on the ice, every member wearing a Bruins uniform. Six men, 60 men, 1,000 men, doing close-order drill as coach Don Cherry barked commands from a step-ladder. Who loses a game, a series, because too many men are on the ice?