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The atmosphere seemed to come from an old movie. Maybe a prison film. An opera singer named Rene Rancourt was invited for the first time to sing the national anthem in 1976. He didn't know anything about hockey. ("Never paid attention.") He never had heard of the Bruins. ("Who are they?") He didn't know how to get to the Garden. ("Where is it?") When he got there, saw what was happening, he was amazed.
"There were all these people pounding on that plexiglass, all this noise," he said. "The smoke was everywhere from all of the cigarettes. You smelled beer everywhere. I said, 'These are my people.' I loved that place. I even loved the rats in that building. Those big river rats. You'd see 'em on the way out the back door late at night."
An image of the Bruins hockey player emerged. He wore an open blue collar. He was not afraid to dirty his hands. The Lunch Pail A.C. That was the nickname. Punch in, punch out. An honest effort. The off-ice exploits made news, wacky stuff like when Orr and some teammates kidnapped center Phil Esposito from Mass General after knee surgery, wheeling him out to go to a team party, but the on-ice exploits were solid and successful. The city loved the Bruins. The Bruins loved the city. Even after the birth of the competing World Hockey Association and the expansion of the NHL took talent off the roster, the Bruins were the bottom-line Boston team. They were family, not just sports entertainment. Family and friends.
The players on the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, as the money grew larger and larger, became wealthy visitors. They played their seasons, made their money, took it somewhere else, preferably warm, when seasons and then careers were finished. The Bruins routinely stayed. They bought houses. They raised kids. They shoveled the driveway and said hello. Family. Family and friends.
"You'd get everything for free," Sanderson said, describing the Stanley Cup days. "You'd go to a restaurant, eat for free. Go somewhere else, drink for free. Free clothes. You'd get gas. No problem. I never had a date the whole time I played in Boston. Not a date where you went to the girl's house, picked her up. You just went to the bar. Come around midnight, you picked out who you wanted."
There was nothing as good as being a Bruin in Boston in those days. Nothing in sports. Nothing maybe in anything.
So now the best times, at least an updated version of the best times, have arrived again. The local newspapers are filled with stories about the old Bruins, about Sanderson and Orr and their faded glories. Former winger Johnny (Pie) McKenzie remembers when he poured a pitcher of beer over mayor Kevin White's head during the city hall celebration in 1970. He also remembers when Kevin White poured a pitcher of beer over his head in '72.
Comparisons will be made in the coming week between this team and the old Bruins—Tim Thomas compared with Gerry Cheevers in goal, perhaps Patrice Bergeron compared with Sanderson, nobody compared with the celestial Orr, although Zdeno Chara is a fine defenseman. Styles will be compared. The game of hockey today with its space-age boots, composite sticks and mandated helmets will be compared with the hockey of just plain skates, just plain wood and just plain bare heads.
The old Garden, gone since '95, will be compared with its sterile replacement. Everything will be compared. The price of tickets will be compared. The crowds will be compared.
"I think I'll go, but you look at those ticket prices," Sanderson said. "I remember when a ticket was $4.50. I guess it's still $450. They just got rid of that decimal point."