You hear it every summer: some free agent with roots in Boston is surely going to sign with the Bruins. On the surface, it makes complete sense. Boston is one of the greatest sports cities in the world and seems to field contenders in every sport year after year. The Bruins are an Original Six franchise with names like Orr, Esposito, Bourque, and Neely hanging in the rafters. They won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and nearly won another in 2013. Their current roster features titans of the game like Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron and is led by a highly respected head coach in Claude Julien. Boston has the best hockey TV ratings of any city in the United States that also houses an NBA team, and trails only Pittsburgh and St. Louis for first overall. Outside of the pro game, Boston is even more vital to the hockey world. It is unquestionably the hub of college hockey and the epicenter of the Hockey East conference. Boston College and Boston University are storied NCAA programs, joined within the city limits by Northeastern and Harvard and surrounded by numerous top-end college teams throughout New England. It is also a grassroots hockey heaven, with youth teams, junior teams, and elite high school and prep school teams littered throughout the city, the suburbs, and the rest of the New England states.
Yet, for the second time in three years, Bruins fans are left scratching their heads as one of Boston’s native sons signs elsewhere. Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey, whose father played for the Bruins, followed in the footsteps of friend and former BC Eagle Kevin Hayes, and chose New York, Boston’s arch rival city, and the Rangers over his childhood favorite Bruins. Is the pressure of playing in their hometown which has such a storied hockey history too much? When it came to Vesey, CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty seemed to think so. He says that the pressure of playing in front of his friends and family every game and the fear of the negative effects that underperformance may have on everyone involved were key considerations in Vesey’s final decision. This played out last season when “the pride of Dorchester”, Jimmy Hayes, was acquired by the Bruins and was heralded as a local boy who was going to be a difference-maker in Boston. As Hayes struggled throughout the season, he was met with even more criticism, disappointment, and anger than the typical player. Perhaps Vesey feared that this scenario could play out for him as well. WEEI’s DJ Bean doesn’t think that “not being tough enough to play in Boston” was the main reason why Vesey chose to leave home, but wonders why the Bruins weren’t chosen, especially over the Rangers. The Bruins offered Vesey a chance to live somewhere he was comfortable with and play for a team with a strong, up-and-coming prospect system, and reportedly was set to start the season playing with star center David Krejci and young scorer David Pastrnak. However, he spurned the Bruins for a Rangers team who many believe has seen their Stanley Cup window come and go, and who additionally have plenty of depth on the left side, including the younger Hayes, Rick Nash, (Boston native) Chris Kreider, and JT Miller.
Other than Vesey and the Hayes brothers, examples of Boston players who have chosen not to sign with the Bruins or struggled under the pressure of playing for their hometown squad are hard to come by. Haggerty points to Chris Bourque and Hal Gill as examples, but Bourque was (and is) a career AHLer who was given a great chance to be a contributor for his favorite team, much to the delight of fans of his legendary father, but there were never any grand expectations for him to fall short of, and Gill was a fan-favorite for years in Boston. Bill Guerin, Ted Donato (who recently spoke about how it was an honor to play in Boston), Steve Heinze, Bobby Carpenter, Andy Brickley, Jim Craig and more are all examples of Massachusetts natives that were happy to end up as Bruins and did not perform any less under the spotlight, and guys like Shawn McEachern, Tom Fitzgerald, and Jay Pandolfo went out of their way to play for the Bruins at the end of their careers. Robbie Ftorek even agreed to coach the Bruins, and there’s no more of a high-pressure position for a local guy than that.
However, there may be something to be said about the fact that the three highest scoring Boston natives in NHL history – Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, and Tony Amonte – never donned the black and gold sweater. Could it be that locals who are role players do well in Boston, but the more talented players with high expectations, like Vesey or the Hayes brothers feel the pressure of the media, the fan base, and their own friends and family? This might also explain why another talented Bostonian, Keith Yandle, chose a long-term deal with the Florida Panthers this off-season despite the Bruins likely being interested.
What’s curious is that Boston’s own may be wary of playing for the Bruins, but it still remains a top destination for hockey players around the globe. Just last offseason, Windsor, Ontario’s Matt Beleskey took less money to come to Boston, stating that he had dreamed of playing for the Bruins and that they were always his top choice. Beleskey was also quick to blast Vesey about his decision, showing his passion for the team and the city. Players who attend college in Boston, but didn’t grow up there, are also often eager to return, like Brian Leetch. The Bruins have a worldwide fan base, and Europeans, Canadians, and Americans alike are drawn to the hockey city. However, their homegrown talent in recent years doesn’t seem to feel that same magnetism.
This trend of Boston natives supposedly struggling with the pressure of playing for the Bruins or fearing a return to the city will really be put to the test over the next few years, as local prospects (with Bruins bloodlines) Ryan Fitzgerald and Ryan Donato get their chances to shine in front of a hometown crowd and a D-needy Bruins team likely try to woo Natick, MA native and 2018 free agent John Carlson back home. Whether it be Carlson, a different NHL free agent, or another Hayes/Vesey college free agent scenario, it won’t be long before we hear “he’s from Boston, he’ll want to sign with the Bruins” and the myth of that statement no longer being true will be put to the test yet again.