If the 2011 Stanley Cup Final were pitched as a movie script, it would have been rejected for being too outlandish.
One player biting his opponent. A series-long suspension after a star player was stretchered off the ice after a hit. Goalie trash talk in the media. The heavy underdog upsetting the favorite, and in the process going from one of hockey’s most hated teams to the club North America rallied behind in the series. Oh, and in the end, a riot that left the losing city in flames.
The teams couldn’t have been more different. Vancouver, who won the Presidents’ Trophy for the season’s best record, was the first team in 33 years to lead the NHL in both goals scored and fewest goals allowed. They were seeking their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and to become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993.
The Bruins hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1972, but had recaptured the hearts of Boston with a defensively strong and physically brutal style of play. They were also resilient, making the Stanley Cup Final after two straight postseasons of heartbreak, including a blown 3-0 series lead against Philadelphia in 2010.
What turned this matchup into one for the ages? We took a look back with four players who participated in it: Bruins winger Milan Lucic, now with the Calgary Flames; Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference, who is now the director of social impact for the NHL; Bruins winger Mark Recchi, now an assistant coach with New Jersey who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017; and Vancouver winger Chris Higgins, who is currently a development coach with the Canucks. (We reached out to other Vancouver players, who either respectfully declined or did not respond.)
Here’s how they remember the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, with the benefit of hindsight:
The Bruins and Canucks played only once in the regular season: a 3-1 win by Vancouver at home. There was no rivalry between the teams, and certainly not on the level of the ones the Canucks had with Chicago or Boston had with Montreal. That was about to change, as were the perceptions of the teams: The villainous “Big Bad Bruins” were suddenly the team people were rooting for against the Canucks, a team of undeniable skill but one that was infamous for underhanded tactics by players like Alexandre Burrows and Maxim Lapierre.
Mark Recchi, Bruins: “They were a good team. They were skilled, with the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo. They had some swagger to them — I mean, that’s how you get to the Final, with swagger. We were quieter. We only played them once in the regular season. We weren’t that passionate about them. But that changed really quickly.”
Milan Lucic, Bruins: “There’s no natural rivalry between Vancouver and Boston. There’s no city rivalry, like New York vs. Boston, or a sports one, like Boston and Los Angeles. But it felt off the get-go, there was hatred. Not just the teams, but the cities, too. Looking back at the last 14 years of my career, I don’t know if there was a series I can remember where there was so much hatred that was all created inside that series.”
Andrew Ference, Bruins: “On an individual basis, there were a few beefs. There were a couple of players on the team we knew about, who had been traded there. Hockey players are like elephants. We remember some slight from years ago that we never get over, and that bad blood carries over for like half a decade.”
Recchi: “People started rooting for us, which was weird. We were the ‘Big Bad Bruins.’ But we felt the change. We get there against Vancouver, and now everyone is on our side, and we’re like, ‘What the heck just happened? We liked [being hated]!'”
Lucic: “They were mouthing off in the media, too. We were doing the [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick thing and not saying much and just doing what we needed to do. It flipped. Outside of people in Vancouver, it felt like the rest of North America were cheering for us over the Canucks. Even in Canada.”
Chris Higgins, Canucks: “I was a little disappointed in Canada, to be honest. Not a lot of Canadians rallied around Vancouver to win the Cup. You see that in other organizations, when they make it far in the playoffs, all of Canada wants to get behind them a little bit because there hasn’t been a Cup winner since 1993. I felt we should have gotten more support from the country of Canada, to be honest with you.”
Ference: “I think there’s more respect for the thuggish way we played, because at least it was honest. We backed it up. We didn’t have a lot of guys that would just chirp but not back it up. If we made a bad hit, we were the first ones to own up to it and fight in the next game or whatever. You respect a team that fights back. You don’t respect a team that takes it and takes it and takes it, and chirps and then bites a finger. There’s not a lot of respect in the game for that reaction. They had a couple of individuals on their team that would never own up to what they did. They would do a cheap shot and their mitts would be glued on. It’s one thing to do that once in a while, but if that’s your career, you’re not going to be very popular around the league.”
Higgins: “The Bruins went from the villains to 80% of the hockey world rooting for them vs. us. I found that a little disappointing. Not that I gave a s— one way or another. I just thought Canada would rally behind us. Just think of that party, you know?”
Lucic: “We were the hated guys. We were the ‘Big Bad Bruins,’ and they were the high-flying Canucks. They scored 300-plus goals that season. They were loaded, top to bottom. But then Burrows bit Bergeron.”
In Game 1 of the series, Bruins center Patrice Bergeron put a glove in the face of Canucks winger Alexandre Burrows during a unremarkable scrum near the boards. Burrows then made it remarkable: Biting the right index finger of Bergeron through his glove. The Bruins reacted to the incident with abject mockery. In Game 3 of the series, Recchi stuck the fingers of his glove in the mouth of Canucks forward Maxim Lapierre, who had previously taunted Bergeron for the incident. Lucic later offered his finger for Burrows to munch on.
Recchi: “I remember guys gouging eyes in pile-ups, because you’re grabbing whatever you could. But I had never seen biting.”
Ference: “I remember for a lot of us it was just confusing. It’s just such a weird thing to do. It is gross. Anyone that’s been around hockey knows that gloves are essentially the most disgusting thing in a hockey bag. Yuck.”
Higgins: “Every team has a couple of guys that like to push the envelope and stir it up. Burrows was one of our guys. He also had a heart of gold, for the people who don’t know him. He’s an incredible person.”
Lucic: “Bergy … his reputation speaks for itself. He’s one of the cleanest guys out there. He doesn’t say much. He’s not a chirper. I mean, he has [Brad] Marchand doing enough of that for him. They were targeting him. Burrows went after him.”
Higgins: “I love Burr. He was good at getting people off their game, getting them to think about beating Alex Burrows instead of beating the Vancouver Canucks. There’s value in that. Has he overstepped the lines a couple of times? Sure, and I think he’d be the first one to admit that. But that’s just because he’s so competitive and he wants to win.”
Lucic: “We were the ‘Big Bad Bruins’ team, but they were the ones initiating the scrums. I think they were trying to prove a point that they weren’t going to be pushed around.”
Ference: “It’s not like he bit his finger off. It’s wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you hurt our star!’ It was more insulting than anything else. It was just silly. There are unwritten rules in hockey, and just certain … lines that you don’t cross out of respect. You can do some pretty dirty things. But there are some things that just cross the line. When you see it, you know it. And when someone bites a finger, you know it.”
Recchi: “[Taunting Lapierre] was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s the emotions of the game. Burrows bit Bergy. I saw the bite marks.”
Lucic: “Recchi did it right before me in the same game. The reason I [taunted Burrows] was because right before that scrum, Timmy had covered the puck and Burrows had slashed him in the glove hand. I heard Timmy go ‘Uh!’ So that’s why I went after Burrows. And since Lapierre mocked Bergy about it, I felt it was fitting to do it back to Burrows.”
Higgins: “It was just a distraction, but I don’t think we were distracted by it. I think it was more just a talking point for TV. It was the game within the game kind of stuff.”
Lucic: “A lot of people used to say this about us: Don’t poke the bear. They were doing little things like that to wake us up emotionally.”
Vancouver won the first two games of the Final at home. In the first period of Game 3, the series took an unexpected turn: Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome laid out Boston forward Nathan Horton with a high, hard and late hit. Horton was stretchered off the ice. Rome, who said the hit was “barely illegal,” was suspended four games by NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy, taking him out for the rest of the series.
Lucic: “[Horton] kicked the puck wide to me. When you get the puck like that, you don’t get to see what’s going on behind the play. And then you just see him on the ground with his arms stiffened up in the air, and that’s a sign that a guy has been knocked out.
Ference: “There was also that personal sense of seeing a teammate go down. I talked to [Patrice Bergeron] about this. I think the reason that it hit home with that core group of guys is because we saw Bergy go through his concussions and go through a long recovery. It was brutal to see a buddy go through that. [Marc] Savard had gone out, too.”
Lucic: “It’s a scary thing. He’s one of my linemates, one of my best friends on the team and one of the reasons why we got to that point, to make it to the Cup Final. He scored two overtime goals against Montreal and I think he had a game winner against Tampa. We had been close before in the playoffs, and he was that one extra guy that we needed to get over that hump. To see him go down was an emotional moment.”
Higgins: “I didn’t think the suspension was going to be that bad, to be honest. But it’s not something you can dwell on.”
Ference: “[Rome] got suspended for the rest of the series. I think stuff would have been burnt down if he didn’t. In a sense, the guy that did it was gone for the series. As least there was punishment. And you don’t put his actions on the rest of the team. We were down two games. We didn’t need extra incentive to win. But it threw gas on the fire.”
Higgins: “Other people have brought up that it was the turning point in the series or whatever. But we didn’t think of it like that. We were able to mentally compartmentalize things. It’s like having a player out of the lineup, and being out of our minds. We’re just hoping the next guy steps up. We couldn’t think about it too much because there was a game the next day. It was like, ‘This sucks, but who’s coming into the lineup? We’ve gotta move on.'”
Recchi: “The animosity grew a ton. We didn’t like each other. At all. They felt the same way. It became an intense series, I can tell you that. I don’t like using ‘hate.’ But the passionate dislike for each other was very real.”
Boston’s Tim Thomas and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo finished the regular season first and second in goals-against average but were two very different goalies. Thomas, 36, was an American-born journeyman who found late-career success with Boston and played a scrambling, unorthodox style. Luongo, 31, was a Canadian drafted fourth overall in 1997 who played a structured “butterfly” style. Luongo was critical of Thomas’ positioning on the game-winning goal in Game 5, saying, “it’s an easy save for me.” When asked to clarify his comments, Luongo memorably said: “I’ve been pumping his tires ever since the series started and I haven’t heard one nice thing he had to say about me, so that’s the way it is.” Thomas responded: “I guess I didn’t realize it was my job to pump his tires. I guess I have to apologize for that.”
Higgins: “I don’t try to get involved with goalies too much, man. They’re an entirely different animal. I just want them to stop pucks.”
Lucic: “Timmy was one of the best goalies, and frankly one of the best players of that year. I don’t know, I guess Luongo kind of took offense that Timmy didn’t praise him or say anything good about him at his press conferences. But, I mean, he didn’t say anything bad about him, either. Luongo took offense to it and said what he said about his style after Game 5. It’s pretty crazy.”
Ference: “There was a love/hate thing with Luongo. He’d be put on the pedestal and then torn down and then put back up. He gave up a lot of goals in Boston. A lot of us interpreted it as he was going through his own thing. It wasn’t really about him and Timmy.”
Higgins: “I thought it was ridiculous, honestly. But it’s kind of like two prizefighters talking s— with each other. It’s competitive, man. Tim Thomas played lights-out goaltending. Bobby was trying his best. Two competitive guys going at it.”
Ference: “I think it caught Timmy off-guard.”
Recchi: “It kinda caught all of us off-guard.”
Ference: The whole ‘pump your tires’ thing came out of nowhere. Nobody really knew what the hell he was talking about, including Timmy. It was more confusing than anything. Like, I didn’t know they had to compliment each other. We didn’t know there was a beef there. Like, you’re just a goalie. Stop the puck.”
Recchi: ‘We’re supposed to pump each other’s tires? Like, I don’t know about that. Timmy’s just worried about stopping the puck and worried about the Boston Bruins, as he should be. He wasn’t focused on Luongo.”
Ference: “Knowing a guy like Timmy, he prided himself on proving people wrong. So that was all the motivation that he needed. As a group of players, we didn’t even have to say anything to Timmy. We all knew that was the wrong guy to say that to. Timmy only let in two goals after that.”
Along with all the shenanigans off the ice, there was also a championship series being played. Luongo’s 1-0 shutout in Game 5 meant Vancouver could eliminate the Bruins in Boston in Game 6. But from the drop of the puck, it was clear that wouldn’t be happening: Boston scored four goals in the first 9:45 minutes of Game 6, and eventually won 5-2 to force Game 7. Luongo, in his first game after “Tire Pump Gate,” was pulled after giving up three goals on eight shots in eight minutes and 35 seconds.
Lucic: “We were disappointed in the loss, and especially the way we lost. We had chances in that Game 5 to go up one or two goals. Our confidence didn’t waver because of how good Games 3 and 4 went at home. We were a good home team before that playoff run, too.”
Higgins: “We were one win away. We were looking for guys to step up and have big games [In Game 6] and become heroes. Everyone prepared for that … but we couldn’t get it done.”
Lucic: “I remember Ference wrote on the whiteboard [in the dressing room], ‘No one raises the Cup in our building.’ So that was another piece that added to our motivation.”
Ference: “I wanted to hammer home anything I could to give the guys confidence. In Calgary [in 2004], we were up and had a chance to win in Game 6, with the Cup on the line vs. Tampa. I remember talking to the boys, over and over again, how hard it was to sleep, because all I could think about was what I was going to do with the Cup. Over and over. You couldn’t help but dream. So I told them here is what’s going through [the Canucks’] minds right now. They probably slept an hour last night. And on top of that, it’s a pain in the a– for them to fly their wives down and get tickets for their parents and do all the bulls— that comes with being able to clinch. So I told them that there’s no way we’re losing Game 6, because they’ve got all that against them. That was our mental kung-fu. And then we basically replayed that for Game 7. Except now all the pressure’s on them in front of their home crowd.”
Recchi: “We had played great there all year, and we had already had a great couple of games there in the series. We played the game that we needed to play. Got off to the start that we needed, scoring two or three early. They had a lot of chances in the third, but we were up pretty significantly. We felt it wasn’t really a game.”
Higgins: “We couldn’t get our foot in the door with a timely goal. We kept scratching and scratching and scratching, but that door never opened for us. Boston played well. They suffocated us.”
Recchi: “There was that dialogue about how they felt great about their game and we were just like, ‘Hey, it’s great that you feel great about it. But we’re coming back to Vancouver for Game 7.'”
The Bruins captured the Stanley Cup with a 4-0 win in Vancouver on June 15, 2011. Bergeron, six games removed from getting gnawed on by his opponent, scored the game’s opening goal and added a critical shorthanded goal in the second period to make it 3-0. Thomas stopped all 37 shots he faced.
Recchi: “I kind of knew it was going to be the end for me, regardless of what happened. I couldn’t have pictured a better place. To end my career in Vancouver. I was a B.C. boy. I sat out on the deck of the hotel [the night] before Game 7, and it was gorgeous. We were on the ocean. Was watching the water planes go in and out, sipping on glasses of wine with Shawn Thornton and just enjoying it. We felt so great about our team. We knew we were going to get it done.”
Lucic: “I remember that morning we went for a walk down the sea wall, because we were staying at the Bayshore. There was a group of us. I just remember thinking how cool it would be to achieve this moment in my hometown. With my parents and my grandparents and my brothers and my girlfriend, who’s my wife now. It couldn’t have been a better situation than it was.”
Higgins: “I think everyone on that team would say the same thing: There’s not a day that goes by when you don’t wish you could have won in that Cup run. We felt we had the better team. We felt we had a team that could win. We lost the war of attrition, with key injuries at the wrong time. Our power play dried up. I don’t think they would have been able to play as physically as they did if our power play was clicking. But they saw that it dried up, and that was an advantage they had.”
Ference: “I remember feeling really relieved that [Bergeron] scored early. We had trouble scoring there. To get that goal early, you would see the grips on their sticks get tighter. They weren’t playing with a ton of confidence. They were rattled. They had zero confidence after [Bergeron’s] shorthanded goal. That atmosphere changed, too. You’re in Canada. It’s not like being in Nashville where they’re down 5-0 and everyone is still singing and dancing. When you’re in Canada, it gets quiet. It really does.”
In 1994, there were riots in Vancouver when the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup Final in New York to the Rangers. Concerns that they’d happen again were validated: At least 140 people were injured and over 300 people were charged by police after a night of arson, destruction of property, violence and looting — all of it happening while players were still inside Rogers Arena.
Lucic: “We didn’t really know what was going on. We were partying in the dressing room. We didn’t have any TVs on. Everyone still had a Blackberry. There was no Instagram yet, which is crazy to think about. We didn’t see any videos or that kind of stuff. We didn’t know what was actually going on.”
Ference: “We didn’t know anything until the cops and our PR guys came into the dressing room and told us to wrap up our celebrations if we wanted a police escort to the airport. I think we already drank all the beer. So it’s like, ‘Let’s go.'”
Higgins: “I learned about it when I was about to leave, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to leave the arena. [Laughs] I ended up getting driven back to my hotel with Max Lapierre with an undercover cop from NHL security. Driving through the city was crazy. It seemed like a movie.”
Recchi: “It was crazy. We couldn’t believe what was happening. I had all my family there and they had to walk back [to their hotel], which was really scary. They kept me updated. My parents and my brothers — and thank goodness they were there, because they could handle themselves. It was just a sad situation.”
Ference: “It was just stupid. It really was. I don’t want to oversimplify it because it’s just some idiots that are drunk and just want a new TV. Like, are they actually upset about the hockey?”
Higgins: “I was staying at a place near Granville Street, so I had eyes on it. You’d see cars speeding down the street and people throwing bottles at the cars. And then 10 minutes later, you’d see riot gear, shooting flash grenades and tear gas. I had to close my window because my eyes were tearing up on the hotel balcony. That was wild. But it was hard to digest anything at that point, because I was so numb from losing. I was so numb for three or four days. It was a dark, confusing time. You dream something your entire life and then it gets snatched from you. I was done physically, mentally, emotionally. I was an empty vessel at that point.”
A decade later, the 2011 Stanley Cup Final is remembered as one of the most intense and dramatic championship rounds in NHL history. The teams have taken different paths since then. Vancouver has advanced past the first round just once since that season. Boston, with a core of players from the 2011 championship team, lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and 2019. The Bruins have honored the players from this championship team for the past year, including a memorable Zoom call in which they watched Game 7 together for the first time.
Ference: “We’ve drawn out the nostalgia lane on this one this year. At the start of COVID, we did that Zoom party where all the guys were on and we rewatched the game and had some beers. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing some stuff with the Bruins on a podcast. For me, it’s been stretched out over a long time. Watching the games again. Showing the kids how cool we are.”
Lucic: “I still think about that group every day. I’m so lucky and so fortunate to be a part of a special group like that. That’s what made us a championship team: How much we loved each other. How much we cared about each other. I think you could see that genuinely in that Zoom call that we had. I cherish it every day.”
Recchi: “The Cup winners I’ve played on are all special, but I ended my career winning one with an Original Six team. And a team that had really been through a lot in the previous few years. It was just a special group. When you’re retiring and you can end it with that group of guys, it’s incredible.”
Ference: “When you’re playing and going through the playoffs, you basically turn into a sociopath. You close off all of your emotions. It’s a stupid thing: Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. You’re not really practicing very good mental health, but it really helps in the sense of erasing a bad shift or forgetting about a mistake. But in doing so, you don’t really soak in all the good stuff, or take in things or remember things. You don’t really appreciate it. You’re guarded. Like maybe you’re not allowed to enjoy it in the moment. Which, again, it’s so stupid. You’re allowed to enjoy things and still be good at them.”
Higgins: “For me, it was the most fun I ever had playing hockey. I gave everything I had, down to my soul. But I’m still with the organization, 10 years later. I guess the dream is still alive to win a Stanley Cup in Vancouver. And I really hope I do.”
Ference: “You know that you’re in some really fond memories for people. It could have been the start of their hockey fandom. I’ve seen some people who said they went to every playoff game with their dad, and some of those dads have since passed away. So it becomes an everlasting memory for some people, and you’re a part of that. It’s pretty cool.”