BOSTON – Evidently, the fine line that separates appropriate and unacceptable behaviour extends beyond the ice in this heated playoff series. That is as unfortunate as it is true.
An unsavory feeling hung over the Montreal Canadiens-Boston Bruins matchup in the wake of Game 1, where the Habs players were pelted with cups and other garbage following P.K. Subban’s winning goal in double overtime on Thursday night while Twitter was flooded with racial epithets direct towards Subban.
Yes, this was the work of a relatively small number of ignorant reprobates, but it left an impression on both teams. There wasn’t much talk about the power play or in-game matchups or line juggling on Friday. Bruins president Cam Neely even released a statement condemning the "racist, classless views" expressed towards Subban – making it clear that they didn’t represent the feelings of his organization, but also ensuring that the incident wouldn’t simply get swept under the carpet.
Good on him.
This is one of the world’s truly great sports cities; a place where the games and the teams are always part of the daily public consciousness. During a casual walk through downtown on Friday afternoon, I saw a man in a suit wearing a Red Sox hat, another sporting pants adorned with Bruins logos and a child decked out in head-to-toe Sox gear. All within a city block.
However, it is also a city that has an uncomfortable racial history. It was only two years ago that Neely had to put out a similar statement after Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward scored the overtime winner against the Bruins in Game 7, inciting derogatory comments on Twitter, and the deep past is full of incidents much worse than that. Former Celtics legend Bill Russell once labelled Boston a "flea market of racism."
These problems are not unique to this place – the NBA’s recent lifetime ban to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling reminds us of that – but they still exist here. That is why there was such outrage from the Bruins over this incident. On Friday, they stood in solidarity with Subban and the Canadiens.
"It’s just poor judgment, poor taste," Boston coach Claude Julien said practice. "We don’t associate ourselves with people like that. The people who think that way are not what we call our fans. They may think they are, but we certainly don’t support that at all.
"It’s a shame that this is still going around in this day and age, that people are still thinking that way."
Michel Therrien, the Canadiens coach, planned to have a discussion with Subban on Friday night. His reaction to learning of the despicable Twitter comments was one of shock. "No one (deserves) to be treated like that," Therrien said.
The Montreal players had already discussed it amongst themselves at a team breakfast and forward Brendan Gallagher indicated that Subban was understandably "disappointed" by what went on.
There is nothing in his history to suggest that it will negatively impact his performance in Game 2 on Saturday afternoon. Subban was already considered public enemy No. 1 for Bruins fans in this series – he was booed every time he touched the puck on Thursday night – and responded with a pair of goals.
"In the craziest atmospheres, in the craziest buildings, in the biggest games, the biggest moments – to me that’s how you define yourself as a player," Subban said after Game 1. "I think that it’s always important for me to make sure that I’m competing and I'm helping my team win in these types of games. That’s how I evaluate myself and my game; I don’t evaluate it in the 5-0 games or the 4-0 games.
"When the game’s tight I feel confident because I know that my teammates count on me and they expect me to step up and make things happen."
They also have his back.
A couple of the players spoke of the galvanizing effect the incident could have in the dressing room. Already ahead 1-0 in the second-round series, they figure that there’s no better response than delivering another victory before heading home.
It won’t be easy.
TD Garden is a hostile place for visiting teams to play. Hate, in a sporting sense, is simply part of the deal here. Prior to Game 1, street vendors were selling t-shirts adorned with sayings such as "F--- The Habs" and "Canadiens are Eh Holes."
"Everyone knows that the Boston fans are great," Gallagher said. "At times it’s one of the most fun buildings to play in in the National Hockey League. The fans are on you, they’re having fun as well.
"I think when they take it to the next level is when it goes too far and it gets personal."
Let’s hope that it doesn’t happen again. This promises to be an intriguing series between the NHL’s oldest rivals and the focus belongs on the ice – not off of it.