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If you’re nearing 50 you remember well the days of the so-called “Big Bad Bruins.” They were the rage around New England with their stranglehold on our attention best exemplified by the picture of Bobby Orr flying through the air sideways while screaming after scoring the winning goal against the St. Louis Blues.

Generations of kids took up hockey. Mylec made a killing selling street hockey blades, pucks, and balls. The remnants of this boomlet exist today in broken down street hockey rinks in Leominster and Fitchburg.

That interest soon waned, and it has never really caught on in the United States save for pockets here and there among the “original” teams. Hockey has always been a red-haired stepchild in professional sports. Salaries were generally lower and, oddly enough, the players were generally more affable. A few years back, they experienced their own salary explosion. The starkest difference for them, however, was they did not have the broad-based appeal to establish national markets and lucrative TV deals.

While this profligate spending took place, our local team, the venerable Boston Bruins ran it like a business. Jeremy Jacobs, the food concession magnate, stayed a recluse in Buffalo, letting Harry Sinden count the nickels and whine about the cost structure to the media when queried about the lack of spending on the part of the Bruins.

And come around they did. The other owners had a “come to Jesus meeting” and understood they had to cut costs. Cutting costs meant hammering the player’s union. Getting any union to understand the economics of a situation requires long and painful deliberations, and these knuckleheads were no different than their truly blue-collar brethren on that end.

Therefore the league shut down for a year, with owners losing money and players bolting to Europe to play for considerably less money than paid here to play the game. The league endured a classic game of brinkmanship. Neither side ever really acquitted itself well, with each displaying incredible acts of stubbornness and stupidity.

And throughout it all the fan base pretty much said, “Who cares?” Oh sure, there are some devoted get-a-lifers out there who will embrace the league with open arms when the season starts. Each sport has their coterie of rabid nitwits; hockey’s happens to be considerably smaller than most.

It will be very interesting to see if a league that over-expanded and foolishly went into extremely small markets incapable of sustaining a pro team can return from a year of self-imposed exile. The league had delusions of grandeur and fell flat on its face. Expanding to Columbus, Ohio with high debt service and ridiculous salaries sounds like a ticket to Chapter 11- Land, and it is a ticket that would have been punched if last season hadn’t been train-wrecked.

The league in general has issues, as do the Boston Bruins. The league can potentially regain some fan loyalty by adding more offense to the product. Northern cities will undoubtedly come back quicker than some of the ridiculous locales into which the league expanded.

The Bruins will have considerably greater difficulty with this. The Jacobs/Sinden brain trust, such as it is, squandered the goodwill earned by Orr, Esposito, & Company by focusing too much on beer prices and net income and not enough on drafting and retaining solid players. They may not be as inept as Billy Sullivan was, but they are pretty damn close.

So yes, hockey is back in town, and all many can muster is a resounding “Who cares?”

Mr. Woollacott is president and founder of Renaissance Group International Inc., a market research and consulting firm focusing on the information technology market. Contact him directly at gwoollacott@cs.com.

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