BOSTON -- Rays of sunlight beamed off the always-shiny Stanley Cup as it was held high by Boston Bruins players, its return to Boston after 39 years bringing hundreds of thousands of fans to yet another championship parade in the city.
"More overwhelming than I expected," veteran forward Shawn Thornton said after riding one of the 18 colorful duck boats on a route that started at TD Garden and ended in raucous Copley Plaza. "Unbelievable turnout. I didn't know that many people lived in Boston, let alone be on the streets today. It was an awesome, awesome experience."
Throngs of fans stretched along the route that covered about three miles, the ride coming to a climatic ending as captain Zdeno Chara arrived at Copley Plaza on one of the first boats with the Stanley Cup. Suddenly Copley felt like an outdoor TD Garden with the crowd roaring, music blaring and horns sounding, black and gold confetti filling the air, and flashbulbs from cameras flickering.
After waiting 39 years, it was a fitting celebration.
Before the rolling rally began at 11 a.m. ET, goalie Tim Thomas told fans this was their day, and in turn, those lining the streets showered their appreciation on a collection of players that they clearly connected with, a hard-working group that was easy to like because they came across as just regular guys.
How else would one describe Chara riding his bicycle to the Garden for the start of the parade, or defenseman Andrew Ference taking the Cup for a walk in his child's stroller? Patrice Bergeron, who addressed the crowd at the start of the parade by saying "We got the Cup! We got the Cup!" later walked through the crowd while returning to his North End residence.
The connection was made with young and old Saturday, as the early start time for the parade created a mostly family-type atmosphere along the route, where there were as many kids as adults, as many Chara, Bergeron and Thomas jerseys as there were of Bobby Orr, Cam Neely and Raymond Bourque, three of the all-time franchise greats.
The connection only grew stronger when at one point, Chara brought the Cup off his duck boat and into the crowd, the cheers growing louder at that moment. No matter the view, whether from rooftops or street level, fans reveled in the moment.
Boston has become familiar with championship parades of late, this being the seventh in the last 10 years, joining the Patriots (2001, 2003, 2004), Red Sox (2004, 2007) and Celtics (2008). Before Saturday's parade, Neely, the team president, addressed the crowd at the Garden and said, "It's finally our time. How amazing is this, guys?"
Even the players seemed amazed at the turnout to salute their championship.
"The whole city, it seems like it was shut down and everybody (was) on the streets," defenseman Tomas Kaberle said. "It seems like all the people had a lot of fun and that is what it's all about. You play for the fans and it took 39 years for Boston to do it. It seems like it was the right moment."
The Bruins and their fans couldn't have picked a better day for such a celebration, which contributed to the tremendous turnout, creating a chaotic scene on the local subway and train service to Boston's suburbs. Lines at sausage stands and ice cream trucks stretched more than 50 deep at Copley, black and gold signs were everywhere, and championship merchandise was sold in a flurry.
Police announced nine arrests of people "charged with, among other things, Public Drinking and Disorderly Conduct." Police commissioner Edward Davis said, "exemplary fan behavior was on full display throughout the day and all along the parade route."
Some came from great distances to take part, such as Toronto's Mike Troake, who donned a Chara jersey, black helmet, hockey gloves, and waved a Canadian flag in a salute to the team's Canadian players.
Thornton, the Bruins' veteran forward, compared the scene to what he had experienced when winning the Cup with Anaheim in 2007. Boston's parade was considerably bigger, as he remembered about 25,000-30,000 people packing a parking lot in Anaheim. Thornton knew this would have a different feeling after what he experienced earlier in the week when the Cup was at a Boston restaurant with him and a few teammates, and helicopters circled overhead.
Thomas, who was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy, called it a day any player looks forward to, adding, "It's awesome to be sharing it with everybody."
At the end of the route at Copley Plaza, where many fans watched on a large screen as the parade slowly made its way through the city, coach Claude Julien's pre-rally remarks drew thunderous applause, particularly when he referenced Boston's other head coaches from championship teams.
"On a personal note, I would like to thank Terry Francona (Red Sox), Bill Belichick (Patriots) and Doc Rivers (Celtics) for the support they've given me personally throughout these playoffs," Julien said as Copley erupted. "Even before winning a championship they made me feel like I was part of their group. But now at least with a championship you really feel like you belong."
Another favorite moment for the crowd was when Chara handed the Cup to Neely, who is still a fan favorite after all these years, as evidenced by the plethora of No. 8 jerseys in the crowd. Chara recalled a conversation he had with Neely in Prague before the season opener.
"I promised him when we won the Cup I'd hand it to him. So, here you go Cam," Chara said to cheers.
There was laughter when rookie Brad Marchand joined Bergeron at the microphone and began rapping a poor imitation of the song "Black and Yellow." That came after general manager Peter Chiarelli and veteran Mark Recchi, who is retiring after 21 seasons, addressed the crowd.
Soon enough, the Cup and Bruins players, coaches and support staff loaded on to the duck boats, the tourist vehicles designed to travel on land and water.
What stood out over the course of the route was the connection between an easily likeable team and fans that spanned generations.
"Just the support of the fans and to see the passion in their faces is just true," defenseman Shane Hnidy said. "These are hard-working fans and that's the kind of team we were. We were built for this city and to win and to go out and celebrate with everyone is amazing."
While Boston police no longer provide estimates, the size of the crowd appeared to be larger than all but the one that turned out to celebrate the Red Sox first championship in 86 years in 2004.
Mike Reiss is a columnist and reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.