December 21, 2009

Fighting behind enemy lines

Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.) crashes the net. (photo: Getty)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

It was a typical night on Causeway Street. A Bruins squad featuring a half-dozen New England natives, plus a Minnesotan who went to Boston College, was taking on a Montreal Canadiens club led by seven players hailing from the province of Quebec.

Only one player in a Boston sweater was French-Canadian. No one on the Montreal roster was from New England. It was just like it always was – right down to the heartbreaking 2-1 loss for Boston.

That was just five years ago, the opening night of the 2005-06 season when the NHL returned from its owners’ lockout. That Bruins team was the ultimate example of homegrown talent living out their Black and Gold dreams. Over the course of that season, 15 players who either grew up in New England or played college hockey here suited up for the Bruins.

And the local flavor extended to behind the bench, with head coach Mike Sullivan (Marshfield, Mass.), and the front office of general manager Mike O’Connell (Cohasset, Mass.) and assistant GM Jeff Gorton (Reading, Mass.).

“The first game of my Bruins career was the best game I ever stepped out on the ice for,” said Tom Fitzgerald, a Billerica, Mass., native who played his final season in the NHL that year in Boston. “It was exhilarating to see my name on the board and hear it announced ‘Tom Fitzgerald from Billerica, Mass.’ That gave me goose bumps.

“It was also the worst game of my career because I got three penalties and we lost the game because I was in the box in the final minute.”

Flash forward five years, and there’s something else about the Bruins that depresses Fitzgerald now. This season, there is not a single New England native on the Bruins roster. The only current player with any ties to the region is goalie Tim Thomas, who grew up in Michigan but starred at the University of Vermont. It’s a stunning change for a team that always seemed to have at least a few hometown heroes for the fans to cheer.

“Is it shocking? I’m not sure it shocks me, but it saddens me,” said Fitzgerald. “Not from a personnel side because you don’t make your decisions on where a kid is from, but is the pool big enough to pick from now? How many New England kids are dressing for an NHL club throughout the league?”

Fitzgerald has a point. At the start of the season, there were just 27 New England natives in the entire 30-team league, so Boston was far from alone in its lack of regional representation. Since the start of the season, another half-dozen locals have earned call-ups, but the numbers are still a tiny percentage of the nearly 700 active players in the league.

Perhaps strangest of all is the fact that of the small number of New Englanders in the NHL, one of the strongest contingents has gathered in the home of the region’s most hated rival. The Canadiens opened the season with a pair of Bay Staters on their blue line in Hal Gill (Bolton, Mass.) and Paul Mara (Belmont, Mass.) – ironically both former Bruins – as well as forward Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.). The Habs have since added former Providence College defenseman – and ex-Bruin – Jay Leach off waivers from the Devils.

It’s enough to make it downright confusing for local hockey fans bred to hate the Habs. At least for fans not personally connected to the locals now donning the bleu, blanc and rouge.

“My friends have all been real supportive of everything I’ve done,” said Pacioretty, who still lives with his family in Connecticut in the offseason. “They don’t care where I play; they’re going to watch me no matter what.”

In addition to his fans back home, Pacioretty also has a support system in place in Montreal with the fellow New Englanders on the team.

“It’s great to have guys who grew up in New England because they realize what it’s like, guys like Paul Mara,” said Pacioretty, of making the transition from growing up in New England to playing for Montreal. “Guys from New England love it here and it’s kind of like we’re our own little group and we go against the Canadian guys in the locker room.”

These days, the Bruins now have almost as many French-Canadians on their roster as Montreal. Patrice Bergeron and Steve Begin have been regulars all year, while Guillaume Lefebvre has been called up several times from Providence. The Habs could counter with just Georges Laraque, Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse on their opening-night roster, though they’ve since signed Marc-Andre Bergeron.

Begin, who played in Montreal under current Bruins coach Claude Julien, joked that the Habs didn’t even have enough French-Canadians to drum up any conversations in his native tongue when the Bruins played Montreal.

“I think they only have three left, so I don’t think we’ll need to speak French,” said Begin.

Instead, Begin can practice his French in his own locker room with Bergeron, though Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton tries to put a quick end to that whenever they start up.

“He tries, but sometimes when Bergeron is beside me we’re going to speak French,” said Begin. “He’s always there listening to us and going, ‘Hey, only English. English only here boys.’ But he sometimes tries to throw a French word out there too. He’s funny.”

Begin joked that the addition of more French-Canadian players in Boston is the result of the Bruins finally “getting smart.” But the lack of local players isn’t as amusing to everyone.

“Why aren’t there more New Englanders playing for the Bruins?” pondered Fitzgerald. “I don’t think it’s something management ever did on purpose. I’m sure if there’s a Boston College kid that’s better than a junior player they wouldn’t take the junior player.

“Maybe (Bruins GM) Peter Chiarelli has tried to get some New England guys,” added Fitzgerald. “They tried to get (Keith) Tkachuk (Medford, Mass.) and it didn’t work out. That would have been a great story.”

Instead, New England fans have to look a little further north for a good story with local ties.

“There’s a lot more U.S. guys up here, so we always kid the French guys about it,” said Pacioretty, who played one season at the University of Michigan before turning pro. “It’s kind of a contest, a U.S.-Canada guy rivalry.

“That’s how the league’s working now. There’s good players all over, so you don’t really see a big group of U.S. guys on one team or a big group of French guys on one team. It’s a lot more spread out now.”

And at least with Montreal in the same division as Boston, New England fans can still see some local players a few times a year. They’re just wearing different colors now.

“My family comes to see me (and) I have a bunch of friends who go to college in the area, so they all come to see me,” said Pacioretty. “It’s always great to play close to home and I was lucky we were able to win when my family was around.”

Douglas Flynn can be reached at dflynn@hockeyjournal.com.