By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 31, 2011

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The Bruins brought more happiness to this region in June than they perhaps realized.

The victory parade was dynamite, one of the best ever. The adulation shown the Bruins, making up for 39 years of scorn and consternation towards the ownership, was duly noted by all who love hockey in the region and also by those who don't profess to be hockey fans. Seeing the most iconic sports trophy in existence paraded down Tremont and Boylston Streets was richly satisfying.

But when you look back on 2011, thank goodness the Bruins won the Cup. Elsewhere, this past year was one of the biggest downer years in recent memory.

Just look at the other three pro teams in the region and see how they fared. The Celtics will need a new group of superstars to contend. The Patriots saw their 2010 season come to an early end and the matriarch of the team succumb to cancer. The Red Sox topped them all, with the mother of all collapses and an organizational shakeup to rival any California earthquake.

The summer of 2011 saw New England get rocked by two tornadoes, a hurricane, an earthquake, and in the fall an early snowstorm that brought about one of the worst power failures in recent memory. 2011 tested the mettle of the average New Englander, and the sports teams, other than the Bruins, didn't help much. The seventh sports title since 2001 barely offset all the other stuff that went on which made New Englanders cringe with exasperation. We present this year's top ten sports stories in the region with two happy tales and eight adverse tales. Raise your glass to the new year 2012, and the hopes that life in general will improve in the region, never mind the sports landscape.

#10 -- Heat eliminates Celtics in second round, May 11

Sorry, but the championship window brought on by the Big Three has closed.

After sweeping the Knicks in the first round, the Miami Heat, boasting the new NBA version of the Big Three, took care of the Celtics in five games on their way to a defeat in the NBA Finals at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. LeBron James, who orchestrated the most contrived and regrettable media circus with "The Decision" to sign as a free agent with Miami in the offseason, finally got the better of the Celtics, who tormented him as a Cleveland Cavalier. Along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat burned the Celtics, who did not have a healthy Shaquille O'Neal and enough material otherwise to adequately deal with Miami.

Even if Shaq were healthy, it is doubtful that the Celtics would have won. The Celtics are trying to squeeze one more season out of their Big Three, and the end may not be pleasant to watch. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen deserve our thanks for joining Paul Pierce and bringing the 2008 title to Boston, but that will be it for this bunch. It was a nice run, but Celtic Nation may wonder what would have happened if Danny Ainge hadn't traded Kendrick Perkins.

#9 -- UMass football to join MAC, become FBS program, April 20

UConn pulled off the transition a few years back, and you had to figure that one day, UMass would do the same.

In 2010, UMass went into Michigan Stadium and came within five points of upsetting the Wolverines in front of more people that live in Amherst. Now, UMass will get a chance to play more games in this part of the country (including a return engagement at the Big House in 2012), as they will join the Mid-American Conference and become an FBS team, moving up to college football's highest level.

Part of the deal is that UMass will no longer play at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, but instead at Gillette Stadium. This move was clearly made to appease the alumni body and not the current student body, as there is likely more interest for UMass football in the Boston area than the Amherst area. When you have tons of UMass students tailgate in the Alumni Stadium parking lots, then head back to their dorms at kickoff, but 30,000 fans pack Gillette Stadium for a grudge match against UNH, you get the logic behind this move.

Whether UMass, whose only taste of the college sports spotlight came from basketball and a 1996 run at the national championship, can be a viable FBS team remains to be seen. But it is a move they have to at least try.

#8 -- Hurricane Irene affects Red Sox, August 27

One of the most unusual weather moments in area history caused the displacement of a baseball game, and wisely so. At least for weather reasons.

Hurricane Irene, a powerful storm which was clobbering the eastern seaboard down south, was heading north and straight for New England in late August. The Red Sox had plenty of advance notification of this, and decided to move the Sunday, August 28th game with Oakland into Saturday night, forming a day-night doubleheader. Sure enough, the storm hit hard on Sunday, despite being downgraded to a tropical storm at landfall and most of the damage coming in western Massachusetts and Vermont. The decision to move the game turned out to be a very good one.

The Red Sox did well against an opponent from the west coast which needed this kind of treatment because of how far away they are and how difficult it is to ask them to come to Fenway later on if needed. The Sox wound up sweeping the doubleheader from the A's, by scores of 9-3 and 4-0. Rain delays stretched out the playing time, but they got both games in and the Sox were up 2 games in the division with two days off to rest and the Yankees coming in Tuesday for a critical three-game series.

But the Red Sox foolishly complained about being inconvenienced over having to play the two games on Saturday. Maybe the baseball Gods took note of this, because what followed was something that Stephen King would use as fodder for a new horror book if he weren't a big Sox fan himself. More on the horror a bit later.

#7 -- Celtics, NBA in lockout

For the longest time, it was believed that there would be no 2011-12 NBA season. The two sides were far apart for seemingly forever. Derek Fisher versus David Stern is far less compelling that LeBron James versus Paul Pierce. But the sides did settle, and on Christmas Day, the NBA finally began its regular season.

The Celtics got on national television on Sunday and wound up having an eight-game win streak against the New York Knicks snapped, as two late Carmelo Anthony free throws gave the Knicks a 106-104 win in the season opener. Pierce missed the first three Celtics games, and the Celtics lost them all. He made his season debut in Friday night's home opener, and the Celtics won going away against Detroit.

But come June, maybe Celtic Nation will be wishing that the lockout were still ongoing.

#6 -- Myra Kraft passes away, July 20

Maybe the most endearing element from Myra Kraft's passing was that during her final days, she let her husband broker the end of the NFL lockout.

Seeing Colts center Jeff Saturday with his arms around Kraft became the symbol of the end of the lockout. Everyone connected with the NFL knew the situation with Kraft and his ailing wife. On July 20, Myra lost her battle with cancer, and the entire NFL, as well as all Patriot Nation, stopped dead in their tracks and the tributes came pouring in by the baleful.

"Much is expected from those to whom much is given!" That was Myra's lifelong maxim, and she fulfilled that dogma and then some. Myra was remembered more for her philanthropy than her connection with the Patriots. But as the wife of the most powerful owner in the league, she became a beloved figure in the region and, quite literally, the conscience of the team.

The team, specifically Bill Belichick and Matt Light, honored Kraft after this past week's win against Miami. The team wears an "MHK" patch on their uniform and has dedicated the season to her memory. The team is poised to earn the top playoff seed again, and if the defense can somehow play to a level where the offense can carry the day, perhaps the team might really do something wonderful for Myra's memory.

#5 -- Theo Epstein becomes Cubs president, October 21

If Theo Epstein should pull off the incredible and bring the first World Series title to Wrigley Field since Theodore Roosevelt was president, Epstein will go down as the best baseball executive of the last 100 years.

After bringing the Red Sox their first World Series title since the Wilson administration, and then another one three seasons later, Epstein decided to take on the mother of all challenges by assuming the presidency of the Cubs. Epstein thus ended a decade-long run in Boston which included those two championships, one temporary resignation, some free agent busts, and one terrific sabermetric-based organizational philosophy which became the model for all of MLB to follow.

But one will always wonder why Epstein really left. Did he want the autonomy he would never get here with Larry Lucchino around? Was upper management angry at the incorrect personnel decisions along the way? Or was Epstein simply another victim of the September collapse? Whatever the case, the Cubs pursued Epstein very hard, and they wound up getting him with minimal collateral due Boston in the end.

If the Cubs get into the World Series and the Red Sox do not, do the right thing and root like crazy for the Cubbies.

#4 -- Patriots lose Divisional playoff to Jets, January 16

Giants running back Brandon Jacobs recently told the "fat guy" to "shut up". The two had an exchange after last Sunday's cross-Joisey matchup.

Too bad someone on the Patriots didn't say the same thing in January.

Rex Ryan was allowed to flap his yap and proclaim the greatness of his Jets, even though the Patriots took them two in a row during the regular season. As fates would have it, the Jets induced some early mistakes from Ton Brady, and went on to win the Divisional Playoff game at Gillette Stadium, 28-21. The Jets went on to lose the AFC Championship Game the next week at Pittsburgh, but not seeing that game at Foxborough was more than Patriot Nation could handle.

Seeing the season go up in flames at the hands of Ryan and the Jets was worse. Ryan has now perfected the art of running smack and backing it up. Lately, Ryan's act has been wearing a little thinner, and the Jets need a miracle to make the 2011 playoffs. But had the Patriots been able to overcome Ryan like early days, Green Bay might not have been so happy in February.

#3 -- Red Sox decline option on Terry Francona, September 30

Simply put, he was the best manager in Red Sox history.

So doesn't it just figure that, after eight seasons, Terry Francona had to be let go because of a clubhouse in shambles and a certain playoff season which went up in smoke in historic proportions. In the span of just one month, Francona had gone from undisputed and unchallenged leader of the Red Sox to the newest sports broadcasting sensation. This sudden fall from grace is still head-spinning and hard to explain.

The Red Sox went 7-20 in September and watched the Yankees take the division, then watched the Rays take the Wild Card on the final night of the season. When it was over, Francona was exposed as being the manager of a clubhouse where players, mostly pitchers, drank beer and ordered fried chicken during games. Francona was further portrayed as a drug addict (painkillers) and word of the possible demise of his 30-year marriage to his wife Jacque made the whole scenario as messy as it could possibly get.

What cannot be ignored in the long continuum of time is that Francona became the second manager in Red Sox history to win two World Series, with Bill Carrigan being the other. Francona, who was just the statnerd type manager Epstein and Lucchino wanted (and John Henry for that matter), was the consummate player's manager. Players loved playing for him. In the end, the players betrayed him by taking advantage of his liberal handling of the clubhouse.

Francona himself said "A new voice is needed for this team", and may have left the team anyway if the Sox had not declined his option. Bobby Valentine is now the new Red Sox manager, and he will be hard pressed to match the run of success Francona had.

#2 -- Red Sox collapse in September, blow nine-game Wild Card lead

You name it, it went wrong for the Red Sox in September of 2011.

1949, 1978, and to a lesser extent 1974 are mentioned as the biggest collapses in team history. They will be mentioned no more. 2011 tops them all. Bad hitting, bad fielding, bad pitching, bad in-game decisions, bad execution, it all went wrong. A two-game division lead and a nine-game Wild Card lead both vanished, the latter on the final day of the season in bizarre style.

September began with the Red Sox at 83-52, with a game and a half lead on the Yankees. By September 2nd, the Sox surrendered first place in the AL East for good. A win against Texas was sandwiched between four losses. A 14-0 win over Toronto begat five straight losses, three to Tampa Bay. The Sox then hung 18 runs on Toronto, then lost five of their next six games. They hung 18 runs on Baltimore, then lost four more in a row. Of the seven September wins by the Red Sox, four of them saw the Sox hit double figures in runs, and twice they hit 18. They also hit double figures in another game, but lost that game 11-10 to Toronto.

A thrilling 14-inning win at Yankee Stadium seemed to sew up the Wild Card for the Red Sox, who had to go to Baltimore for the final three games to nail down the playoff berth. But the Orioles took two of three from the Red Sox, including a miracle 2-run rally in the bottom of the ninth off Jonathan Papelbon to win, 4-3. In St. Petersburg, the Rays spotted the Yankees a 7-0 lead, but tied the game on a solo homer by Dan Johnson with two out in the bottom of the ninth. They won the game in the bottom of the 12th thanks to a solo homer by Evan Longoria some 45 seconds after the Red Sox lost their game to the Orioles.

For all their efforts, both the Yankees and Rays went out in the first round of the playoffs. But no one in those cities shares the grief of the Red Sox and their minions, who were AL pennant favorites yet didn't even secure a playoff berth.

#1 -- Bruins win first Stanley Cup since 1972, June 15

It was about three Game Seven wins on the road, the revenge of the Flyers, and the first Stanley Cup to come to Boston in 39 years.

The Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks didn't have much history going into the 2011 Cup Finals, but they sure do now. Thanks to some terrific goaltending and horrid offense by the Bruins, the Canucks won the first three games played at the Rogers Center in Vancouver. But the Bruins responded with three slaughterings of the Canucks at the TD Garden. Spurred on by the cheap shot on Nathan Horton by Aaron Ward, and some hot goaltending by Tim Thomas, the Bruins were able to extend Vancouver to a seventh game, played out west in Vancouver on June 15.

And in that Game 7, the Bruins were able to paste the Canucks, 4-0 to win the Stanley Cup. Thomas won the Smythe Trophy, Zdeno Chara was the first one to hold the Cup aloft, and the Bruins completed a "quadrifecta" with all four local teams winning a championship within a decade. The Bruins proved to be a lot tougher than the slick-scoring Canucks, and a new generation of fans fell in love with the Bruins all over again.

It was a win that was badly needed in these parts, and as the year comes to an end, the Bruins Cup win stands out as the shining moment of the year 2011. It really was the one and only shining moment, and still greatly appreciated by all in New England.


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