BOSTON, MA - Every year, the Bruins honor their fans by giving the "Shirts Off Their Backs" following one of the final home games at TD Garden.
On Sunday, by the request of some season ticket holders who drew up support, the game jerseys off the backs of the Bruins were instead given to first responders of the tragic events at the Boston Marathon this past week. Included in the group were those representing Boston law enforcement, the FBI, race volunteers and runners alike who all aided in both the aftermath of Monday and with tracking down the suspects on Friday.
The 15-minute ceremony kept the players on the ice for the extra time, but they didn't mind at all, being able to personally thank those who showcased heroism for the city of Boston.
"It was just obviously a great feeling to be able to do it on a personal level and right on the ice in front of the fans," said Zdeno Chara, who gave the jersey off his back to seven-year veteran and patrolman for the Watertown Police Department, Miguel Colon, who fought in the heated battle that escalated in Watertown late Thursday night and came to the aid of his friend and partner, Officer Donahue.
The Bruins huddled over by the bench, waiting their turn to show their gratitude for the courageous men and women.
"I think we all said the same thing: ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.’"
"It wasn’t as much for us as it was for them," added Chara. "To be able to recognize them and thank them in front of the fans."
It was, in fact, a fitting gesture that all fans stayed to watch the ceremony and that it was the fans who had wanted to show their appreciation.
"Everybody stuck around and gave them such a great ovation," said Andrew Ference. "I’m happy for them so that they can see from people just how much they’re appreciated."
Ference also got a welcome surprise, being able to give his jersey (and a big hug) to his friend, Staff Sergeant Lucas Carr of the United States Army Special Operations Command. Carr laced up his running shoes for the Boston Marathon, before racing to ground zero after hearing the blasts.
"The first thing those guys probably want to do is just go home and have some quiet time and collect their thoughts, and for them to get out yesterday for the Sox and today with this, and I’m glad that some of them were able to come and just see how much everybody appreciates them," said Ference, who swapped his jersey with the gold penny Carr had donned while running on the Bruins' Foundation Marathon team Monday.
"From the teams to the fans, everybody wants to give back and just show our love for them, so it was really great."
Chris Kelly also voiced the "special" moment, and through a smile, said he would have been more honored to receive something from them, than simply handing over his jersey to the two people who represent the perseverance of the Boston Marathon probably better than anyone else - Rick and Dick Hoyt. "Team Hoyt" had been running in their 31st Marathon on Monday and were just one mile from the finish line before the blasts.
Alternate captain Patrice Bergeron was photographed during the ceremony shaking the hand of Watertown PD Patrolman Timothy Menton, in what was probably the most fitting photo captured of the night. Just like the impromptu cheers that broke out Friday night around Boston and beyond, it was genuine gratitude for the courage of the first responders.
Menton, a patrolman for Watertown PD, helped save the life of Officer Donahue, alongside Miguel Colon, following the heated battle late Thursday night.
"We feel lucky to have a chance to actually shake their hands and talk to them because not everyone has a chance to do that, and we feel very lucky to do that," said Bergeron, who passed over his jersey to Joseph O'Connor of the MBTA Transit PD, who commanded transit police operations all week in the wake of the tragedy.
"I thought it was a great moment and a great gesture from the Bruins to actually do that, and for us it was easy just to give our jerseys and have a chance to see them, so it was a great moment."
Also receiving a jersey was Massachusetts State Trooper Eric Fairchild, who observed from his position in a helicopter the suspect hiding in the boat with forward-looking infrared imagery. Rich Peverley skated over a held a long handshake with the 15-year veteran.
"Being able to give our jerseys to first responders I think is a true honor," said Milan Lucic, who gave his to John Foley, a 22-year assistant special agent in charge of the FBI.
"At the end of the day, some people view us as heroes and what we do on the ice, but it puts into real perspective what a real hero is, when they respond to something when there's real life danger on the line," added Lucic. "To be able to do that and to hear the fans cheering, it definitely is a different cheer. You get that little tingle in your body when you hear them cheer like that. It was definitely really cool to be able to do that."
As Tuukka Rask took off his game-worn jersey, fresh off a shutout win, and handed it over to Cambridge Police Officer Peter Vellucci, "It's a little wet," he said.
"It's okay" said Vellucci, a nine-year veteran who responded to the scene of fallen MIT officer Sean Collier and proceeded to Watertown in pursuit.
"It’s part of our job to somehow help people, somehow make them happy, help those people that are helping us and helping the city," said Jaromir Jagr, who may be a Bostonian for less than a month, but has already assimilated himself into the B's and city.
"It’s a small help, but it’s something we can do."