BOSTON — Robert Fuller had been to Boston before, but never for hockey. Once the Buffalo Sabres fan learned his buddies were headed to the game Wednesday, he was going along for the ride.
There was no way the city’s recent bombing tragedy would keep him away.
“I’m definitely excited,” the 26-year-old from Bergen, just outside Rochester, said while wearing a Ryan Miller jersey. “I’d come here just like I would any other day. I’m not going to hide in a shelter my whole life.”
Fuller’s thoughts were mirrored by 17,564 other fans who filled TD Garden for the game between the Sabres and Bruins. It was the first major sporting event in Boston since two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three people and injuring more than 175.
Despite no arrests or known motive as the puck drop neared, fans and players chose to embrace the sporting diversion rather than worry about another act of terror.
“You can’t live in fear,” said 27-year-old Jason Baylor of Arcade, a friend of Fuller who also traveled to Boston in January for the Sabres’ first visit of the season. “I don’t worry about the bombing. I go about my everyday life like I normally would.”
The game-day atmosphere certainly looked normal along Canal Street, the food and entertainment strip outside the arena. The patios were full of Bruins fans. The bar stools were occupied by fans of both teams. Souvenir salesmen and ticket scalpers brokered deals.
At the doors of the arena, however, heightened security was visible. Clusters of Boston police officers gathered outside. Inside the doors, fans passed by arena security guards and armed military police before handing over their tickets.
Encounters with police and military were a citywide occurrence as the desire for normalcy mingled with the need for vigilance.
“You put the trust in those people,” said Bruins forward and former Boston University standout Jay Pandolfo. “You want to continue to live your life. You don’t want to think too much about it. It might be in the back of your mind, but you know these people are going to do the best they can to look after you. That’s what we have to have faith in.”
Bostonians also are eager to put their faith in each other. The game and pregame showed that.
After greeting their team with a standing ovation, the fans went mute as the public-address announcer called for a moment of silence to honor those affected by the bombing. The quiet was shattered when the announcer mentioned first responders, with the roar reverberating through every corner of the building.
A scoreboard video showed the many faces of the tragedy – tears, determination, helpfulness – and concluded with the words, “We are Boston. We are Strong. Boston Strong.”
Stickers with the phrase “Boston Strong” were on the helmets of players for both teams, and they took off the headgear for an unforgettable national anthem. Bruins legend Rene Rancourt stopped singing after a few words and let the crowd take over. The full-throated effort transformed into heartfelt chants of “USA, USA” from fans.
“The whole incident puts things in perspective,” said Boston forward Chris Kelly. “It’s a scary thing, especially when something like this happens so close to home. We all know the area. We’re all familiar with the marathon. In some aspect, everyone knew someone running in the marathon or being part of the marathon.
“The Boston Marathon is a great thing for the City of Boston. You see so many smiling faces. That gets turned around pretty quickly. It’s a devastating thing for everyone involved to hear that one of the people that passed away was a young boy. I think that touches everyone.”
A large section of the city is still blocked off as a crime scene. Runners and bystanders remain in the hospital with gruesome injuries. The pain won’t disappear anytime soon.
But for a few hours Wednesday night, the focus turned to revelry and sports.
“Our family has been touched by the heroic moments of so many individuals and the strength and resiliency of this community,” said Bruins owner and Buffalo native Jeremy Jacobs, who pledged $100,000 to “The One Fund Boston,” a charity dedicated to helping the families most affected by the tragedy. “We pledge our unwavering support to this community as the process of healing begins.”