Hockey games can be furious and loud, brutal and bloody. Yet the NHL might have the tightest-knit community in major professional sports.
And so it is altogether fitting that the Boston Bruins — a team of broad shoulders and big hearts — will host the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night in the city’s first large gathering since the terrorist attacks Monday at the Boston Marathon.
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Comparisons to 9/11 have been made — not in casualty figures or sheer horror, but the coping mechanism for many Americans: sport and the web of relationships that goes along with it.
Boston’s hockey community has lived through this before. Sadly, the people here are too familiar with what to do now.
Bruins forward Jay Pandolfo stood at his locker Wednesday and recalled how Sept. 11, 2001, was the first day of training camp with the New Jersey Devils. Pandolfo is from Winchester, Mass. He’s a Red Sox fan, of course. After the attacks, such distinctions blurred.
“When the Yankees started up again,” Pandolfo said, “it was huge for people to get their minds off what was going on.”
For many Bostonians, 9/11 was a deeply personal tragedy. The airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center took off from Logan Airport. One of them was carrying retired Bruins winger Garnet "Ace" Bailey and former Boston University forward Mark Bavis, both of whom were then scouting for the Los Angeles Kings.
Pandolfo, who starred on powerhouse BU teams of the 1990s, overlapped with Bavis for one season there. He has thought about his old teammate this week.
“When something like this happens for really no reason — have people lose their lives, have permanent injuries for the rest of their lives over, really, nothing — you think back to what happened,” Pandolfo said. “Obviously, it was a little bigger scale back on 9/11. But it’s something you think about.
“We were in training camp. Midway through the day, I found out what happened. It was pretty shocking. The whole thing was shocking, anyway. Then when you realize someone was directly involved that you know . . . it was hard to imagine.”
Mike Bavis — Mark’s twin brother — played on the same BU teams, and Pandolfo has stayed in touch with him over the years. Mike Bavis, a longtime assistant coach at BU, was on a recruiting trip to Calgary, Alberta, on the day his brother died.
Ron Rolston, now the Sabres head coach, happened to be in Calgary to scout the same game on Sept. 11, 2001. And at the rink that night, Rolston saw Mike Bavis.
“He had found out,” Rolston recalled somberly, after his team’s morning skate Wednesday. “We were at the same game. He couldn’t leave.
“It was hard. I don’t think anyone knew what to do or say. I remember talking to him before the game. He just talked about staying in his routine and not isolating himself. Hockey people are such great people. There’s obviously a lot of support there. It was either that or he could have stayed in his room.”
More than 11 years later, after a different tragedy that requires similar resolve, neither the Bruins nor the Sabres will be staying in their rooms. On Tuesday, Sabres winger Nathan Gerbe — who used to attend the marathon as a student at Boston College — went as close as he could to the blast site on Boylston Street with teammates Steve Ott, Tyler Ennis and Patrick Kaleta.
“To see everything, it sends a sick feeling in your stomach, knowing what happened there,” Gerbe said.
Rolston also lived and worked in the Boston area, as an assistant coach at Harvard and Boston College.
“We had been to a lot of the Marathons, myself and my wife,” Rolston said. “We didn’t run, but we watched. You’d come down during this day, where the Sox game is. It’s just a great event for the city, in terms of the excitement. People are out. Usually it’s a nice day. Spring’s here. Summer’s around the corner. Everyone’s attitude is changing.”
Rolston stopped abruptly. His thoughts had changed direction.
“It was . . . terrible to see,” he said.
Together, the Bruins and Sabres will try to create a different image only two miles away from the explosions that changed so much. Amid the uncertainty, in the face of safety concerns, Bruins head coach Claude Julien put the task before his team in simple, eloquent terms.
“You want to make sure you do the right thing,” he said. “And the right thing is to play the best game you can tonight.”