BOSTON (AP)- They have come to wave flags or meet the players or just appear on the video screen, invariably to a standing ovation, during the Boston Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup finals.
Many are in wheelchairs, some are in uniform, and others have been honored on behalf of those who couldn't make it at all.
As the Bruins attempt to win their second NHL title in three years, they have shared the spotlight with the victims and first responders from the Boston Marathon bombings, using them as "Fan Banner Captains" and first-puck honorees and otherwise attempting to comfort the stricken city.
Now, as they get closer to a championship, the Bruins are hoping that a Stanley Cup victory can contribute to the healing that has already brought the city a long way back after the attacks on its signature sporting event.
"I think we can help, in probably a large way," Bruins coach Claude Julien said this week after the Stanley Cup finals returned to Boston for Games 3 and 4. "Everybody is looking right now for something to cheer about, smile about.
"I guess it doesn't fix the things or the people that have been lost. That will never be fixed. At the same time you have to try to heal."
Two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, killing three people and injuring hundreds more. The Bruins, who had been scheduled to play that night, postponed that game but returned two days later with an emotional pregame ceremony and a gritty overtime loss that clinched a berth in the playoffs.
Since then, an organization that has long had a close relationship with the military and first-responders has brought in those affected by the bombings - doctors, police and EMTs, along with marathon volunteers, runners and spectators.
"You do what you can, obviously, to lift people's spirits," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "I remember how the city was and reacted to all of that, and it wasn't a good feeling at all. At the end of the day, you know, we're fortunate to be living our dream to be playing a game.
"Having this to try to take people's minds off things is something that's cool to be a part of, and that's what we talked about before. With everything that's gone on in the city, there'd be nothing more they deserve than a big win by us."
Before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday night, an ad on the scoreboard asked fans to contribute to the One Fund, the charity established to help the bombing victims. Marc Fucarile, the last of 31 bombing victims treated at Massachusetts General Hospital to be released, was invited onto the ice to wave a banner that said "Boston Strong."
"While I still have a long road ahead of me, I continue to work hard at my therapy and hope to be home soon celebrating another Bruins Cup!" he said in a statement released by the team. "Thank you to the Bruins ownership, organization and the players for this once-in-a-lifetime chance to wave the flag for the team I love with my son and fiancé. Go Bruins!"
Other victims honored include Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the attacks; the picture of him being helped by a man in a cowboy hat has become one of the lasting images of the day. The team honored him before a first-round game against Toronto, bringing him out in a wheelchair and a Bruins jersey.
The parents of Krystle Campbell, who was killed in the bombing, were recognized during the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh. Richard Donohue, a transit police officer shot during the manhunt for the suspects, got released from his rehabilitation hospital so he could attend a game against the Penguins.
For Game 3 of the Cup finals, the Bruins made the siblings of an MIT police officer who died in the shootout with the bombing suspects honorary banner captains, giving them a "Boston Strong" flag to wave on the ice before the opening faceoff.
And, ever since the attacks, the Bruins have been wearing a blue and yellow decal that says "Boston Strong" on their helmets.
"As much as the city itself has been touched by that, so have we as a team," Julien said. "That's all we talked about in the dressing room. It really hit us hard. Right now we got to focus on doing our job and trying to stay focused on that so that in the end you hope that you can make that happen."
Hanging in the Boston dressing room in the corner next to Andrew Ference's locker is the running singlet with the Bruins logo that former U.S. Army Ranger Lucas Carr was wearing when he ran back up Boylston Street after finishing the race to help the wounded.
Bruins forward Shawn Thornton, who is among the Bruins who developed a friendship with Carr, said he is glad the hockey team has brought the city some happiness. But he said he is not entirely comfortable with the idea that a Stanley Cup championship would somehow diminish the damage done by the attacks.
It's good "if this takes the people's minds off, but it's tough to talk about," he said. "Just to put that into the same perspective as a hockey game, I think isn't right, either."
Which is why the Bruins say they are going to focus on beating the Blackhawks.
"For those couple hours that games are on, we want to make sure we play our best. And we can be inspirational," forward Brad Marchand said. "We're where we want to be, and hopefully we can do the rest for the city."
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