Garnet Hathaway was excited when the Bruins traded for him in February. The rugged, 6-foot-3-inch forward figured his sandpaper style fit the grinding game Boston likes to play.
But he was apprehensive, too. Not only was Hathaway joining an Original Six franchise on an extraordinary run — the Bruins raced to 50 wins and 100 points faster than any club in NHL history and have now tallied a team-record 61 wins — they had uncommon chemistry on and off the ice, and he didn’t want to wreck that.
“I’d heard about the culture here, the respect everyone has for each other,” said Hathaway, who played in Washington and Calgary before putting on the Spoked-B. “But it’s a whole different thing to experience it day to day.”
The playoffs are less than two weeks away and the Stanley Cup seems a realistic reward for the team —some would argue the only acceptable outcome — but looking ahead disregards how the Bruins got here. In a season full of feel-good moments — and one major miscue — the Bruins’ cohesion has been its superpower. Camaraderie alone won’t win the Stanley Cup, but the team’s all-for-one attitude, exemplified by 37-year-old captain Patrice Bergeron and encouraged by first-year coach Jim Montgomery, has made the Bruins an almost unstoppable force.
“The Bruins are playing a style of hockey that the modern-day NHL doesn’t understand,” said Derek Sanderson, who starred with Bobby Orr, Johnny Bucyk, and Phil Esposito on the swashbuckling Bruins squads that won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972. “These guys are playing like old-timers. They like each other and they play for each other.”
Anyone claiming they knew the 2022-23 Bruins would buzzsaw their way to the best record in the NHL is lying. After losing in the first round of the playoffs a year ago, the team went topsy-turvy. Coach Bruce Cassidy, despite an impressive .672 winning percentage over five-plus seasons, was abruptly fired, and the roster’s aging core was in flux.
Bergeron, who’d hoisted the Cup when the Bruins last won it in 2011, looked ready to retire; playmaker David Krejci, also a member of the 2011 team, played in his native Czechia last year and a return to Boston appeared iffy; and flinty forward Brad Marchand, the other holdover from the team that won 12 years ago, needed hip surgery and would start the season on the shelf. The Bruins, it seemed, were on the verge of a rebuild that could make them an afterthought.
But not so fast. In July, a month after Montgomery was hired, photos surfaced on social media of several Bruins, including Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, and David Pastrnak, dancing at former teammate Tuukka Rask’s wedding on an island in the Mediterranean. Bruins fans were euphoric. An Arkansas healthcare worker whose Twitter handle is @BigBruinsEnergy is an example. The hockey diehard named Lauren said seeing “the boys” celebrating together was the highlight of her summer.
“I was, like, ‘Oh my god, we’re running it back!’ ” she said. “Those photos gave me a vibe of, like, ‘We’re coming back for the Cup!’ ”
Bergeron, it turns out, had already told team officials he’d be returning, but he says the time spent with teammates away from the ice — at Rask’s wedding, on the golf course, grabbing dinner in the North End — was critical to building chemistry.
“That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in hockey,” Bergeron said. “But connecting with guys, creating bonds beyond just being teammates — getting to know them and their families on a personal level — is very helpful. You’ll go to greater lengths to be there for each other, to fight for each other.”
Team culture doesn’t show up on the stat sheet; analytics don’t measure altruism. But it’s been conspicuous with the Bruins: When Pastrnak, a prolific scorer, has an empty-net opportunity, he often passes so someone else gets the goal; when Canadiens center Rem Pitlick delivered a high, dangerous hit on Bergeron, Marchand promptly pummeled him; and after every Bruins win, goalies Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman rejoice with a flamboyant, on-ice bear hug.
“Chemistry is absolutely a real thing,” said Edson Filho, associate professor of sports psychology at Boston University. “You’ve got to have skilled athletes and effort. But successful teams also come together and stick together.”
Sometimes that means not taking things too seriously. As part of a promotion with JetBlue this season, the Bruins recorded a series of Q&As. In one, they’re asked to name the most famous person whose number is in their phone. Taylor Hall says Wayne Gretzky; Swayman says Flo Rida; Pastrnak says Rob Gronkowski. Bergeron, with a sweet smile, says Connor Clifton, one of the team’s least-heralded players.
“The reason we’ve been having so much success is because everyone loves playing for each other,” said forward A.J. Greer, a career minor leaguer who joined the Bruins last fall. “Coming in as a young guy from the American Hockey League, I felt a part of the family from Day One. Bergy and the guys made me feel included.”
Bergeron is the team’s unquestioned leader, revered for his skill, judgment, and durability. He’s had a Hall of Fame-caliber career, winning a record five Selke Trophies — given to the NHL’s best defensive forward — and averaging 22 goals and 32 assists for 19 seasons. McAvoy said Bergeron has empathy for his teammates — “he looks out for guys” — but also holds players accountable. “And not in a ‘Beyond Scared Straight’ type of way,” said McAvoy, a reference to the reality TV show about delinquent teens who spend time behind bars with convicts.
“Bergy’s the perfect human,” Swayman said after a recent practice.
“This is the truth,” affirmed Ullmark, sitting nearby. “Quote that.”
In November, after Bruins management announced the team had signed Mitchell Miller, a young player who was convicted as a teenager of bullying a Black classmate with developmental disabilities, Bergeron was first to speak out against the decision. He made it clear that such conduct is antithetical to what the team is about.
“The culture we’ve built here goes against that type of behavior,” he said. “In this locker room, we’re all about inclusion, diversity, respect. We expect guys who wear this jersey to be high-character people with integrity and respect.”
Within 72 hours, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney reversed course, cutting ties with Miller. But the controversy appeared to forge even stronger bonds in the locker room. In praising the three players — Hathaway, defenseman Dmitry Orlov, and forward Tyler Bertuzzi — brought in to bolster the roster for the playoff run, McAvoy obliquely referenced the Miller move.
“[Management] isn’t going to bring in someone who can throw a wrench in the group, someone who’s not pulling the rope the same way,” he said.
Mike Milbury, who played in two Stanley Cup Finals with the Bruins in the 1970s and coached the team to the Final in 1989-90, credits Montgomery with galvanizing the team. Specifically, he thinks the new Bruins coach has been able to coax more from players because he takes a kinder, gentler approach than his predecessor, Cassidy, whose demanding style had begun to alienate some members of the team.
“Montgomery’s the Mr. Rogers of the NHL. Every day in the neighborhood is a beautiful day,” said Milbury. “You have to explain to players what you want. You can’t just scream at them and bench them and yell at them publicly or in the media.
“Montgomery seems to understand that as well as anybody,” he said.
The players appreciate it.
“Monty’s going to see the bright side in most situations,” said Bergeron. “Sometimes that’s all you need. He’s able to break things down and show you what you did right.”
On the rare occasions when the Bruins have played poorly this season — squandering a two-goal lead at home against Edmonton or sleepwalking through a game a few days later in Chicago — the coach’s critiques were never harsh. After the loss to Edmonton, Montgomery called the team’s offensive effort “noncompetitive,” which is about as grumpy as he gets, at least publicly.
Asked about his persistent optimism, Montgomery said it’s inherited.
“I get that from my mom. I don’t think she’s ever had a bad day in her life,” he said. “My dad was heavy and she always lifted me up. I tended to appreciate that more.”
Legendary hockey scribe Stan Fischler, who saw his first hockey game in 1939 at Madison Square Garden, believes these Bruins are one of a kind.
“Frankly, I’ve never seen a team like this, starting with the coach,” said Fischler, who’s 91 and still writes for The Hockey News. “The word I use is ‘astonishing.’ They have the formula: the camaraderie, the coach, and the motivation.”
Many, including Fischler, had predicted the Bruins would struggle to make the playoffs, but they’ve been an absolute wagon this season, punishing opponents with a selfless style of hockey that reminds Sanderson of the good old days. He just hopes they can keep it up.
“The team’s been fabulous, but you can’t just throw the sweaters out there in the playoffs,” Sanderson said. “The Bruins are getting a lot of credit for being the best team in hockey. Don’t believe it! Stick together and keep playing.”
Read more Bruins stories
- The Bruins are on track to break the NHL points and wins record. See their progression here.
- What Harry Sinden thinks of these record-setting Bruins
- Thirty years ago, Jim Montgomery lifted the NCAA championship trophy. Will the Stanley Cup be next for the Bruins coach?
- ‘He’s heavy. He’s mean. He’s a Bruin.’ Garnet Hathaway never stops grinding away.