Bruins take their rightful place

Welcome to the circle of champions, Boston Bruins.

We've been waiting for you. Pining for you, actually. For those of us who grew up with that poster of Bobby Orr lounging among hockey's elite hardware on our wall, it has been a long time coming.

When I was a kid, there was no doubt: This was a hockey town. We lived for the moment when Derek Sanderson would regale us with his latest exploits with the Cup in tow. As the Celtics churned out championship after championship, we had eyes only for the black and gold, for Pie and Cheesy and Phil Esposito, the man my father, an ingrained Rangers fan, degraded as "the garbage collector."

Both my father and I wept when the Bruins swapped Espo and Carol Vadnais (who had the misfortune of donning those ill-advised white skates as a member of the California Golden Seals) to the loathed Rangers for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and the immortal Joe Zanussi.

I mourned my garbage collector; my father blanched at the thought of his gentlemanly Ratelle pulling on that spoked B sweater.

Park grew on me, Ratelle, too, but their efforts to secure another Cup for Boston were futile. We all said, "Next year," unaware it would actually be "next decade."

There were hopeful developments in the '80s. You gave us Cam Neely, the perfect blend of talent and toughness, a born leader who epitomized everything it meant to be a Bruin. Yet the hockey gods were unkind to No. 8, undercutting his career because of a hard (many say dirty) hit from a surly Swede.

We were blessed to chronicle Ray Bourque, the brilliant defenseman and consummate leader, the epitome of dignity and grace -- in the face of defeat. Bourque had to relocate to Denver to fulfill his Cup dreams. We watched from afar, happy for him but fighting that dull ache of envy.

The years went by, and the results didn't change.

I can only imagine what it's been like to watch the other sports teams around exorcise their own championship demons, leaving you alone on the island as the one team that couldn't ... get ... it ... done.

We cherish our sports history in Boston. It validates us. If you didn't know Orr's high-flying goal was against Glenn Hall, you weren't from here. If you couldn't identify the Pesky Pole, or explain in 20 words or fewer why David Roberts was so significant, you best not show your face at Fenway.

It is paramount to be able to recite the moment of "Havlicek stole the ball!" And true fans knew the difference between Sam Jones and KC Jones.

Boston's sports lifers identified with the thrill of linebacker Mike Vrabel catching the ball in the end zone, and Deion Branch has a permanent place in our playoff hearts.

Now, dear Bruins, you will have your own moments. Much like the New Three Celtics -- whose culture changed overnight when Kevin Garnett came to town and his coach, Doc Rivers, invoked the motto "Ubuntu" -- you adopted the concept of promoting the greater good of a group rather than individual success.

It was a philosophy that Neely, promoted to team president, felt was a necessary component to ensure your success. So the team held a team-building preseason retreat in Vermont. There was the trip to Prague, and the brief respite in Lake Placid, N.Y., between Games 3 and 4 of that hotly contested first-round battle with Montreal.

Each time, you were encouraged to trust each other, to believe in your common strength, to feed off each other's passion, resolve and resiliency.

It has been an incredible ride. You stood up to three Game 7 situations, and the other guys blinked. By the time you met Vancouver in that final game with the Cup riding on the outcome, you knew you would win. Each one of you said so.

Your belief in each other was that powerful.

So now you will be part of the championship thread that courses through our city. Tim Thomas' spectacular, flailing, stick save on Tampa Bay's Steve Downie will be replayed in perpetuity. Thomas, the self-effacing 37-year-old goalie, came to represent the face of this 2010-11 Bruins team. He was humble, confident -- and willing to flatten anyone who dared invade his crease.

We all will have our favorite images. Maybe it will be Brad Marchand's incredible pass to himself off the boards that led to the most electric goal of the playoffs, or his wraparound Game 7 gem that he stuffed past the flummoxed Roberto Luongo.

Perhaps the image of Nathan Horton appearing at the Garden, waving a gold towel in Game 6, will be the one that stands your hair on end. Maybe Patrice Bergeron's breakaway short-handed goal is the moment you will savor, or Johnny Boychuk's crushing hit on Ryan Kesler.

No longer will your pregame highlight reel feature grainy clips of more than 30 years past. You will be the highlight now, the new face of a new champion.

Paul Pierce toiled for Boston for 10 years before he won a ring. During that time, he viewed highlights of Russell and Cousy and Bird, and wondered when, if ever, he'd be able to pull himself out from under the weight of those Celtics icons.

You probably know how he feels. Orr's seminal moment will never be forgotten, but he has company now in the circle of champions.

Move over, Bobby, Cheesy, Espo and Pie. Here come Horty and Bergy and Marchand and Timmy and Zdeno.

It is their time now.

Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.