A few minutes past 5 in the afternoon yesterday, less than an hour before the Bruins were to hold a news conference, a club employee was making his way toward the home dressing room at the TD Banknorth Garden. He stopped just long enough to shake his head at what he knew was coming.
''This," he said with a sigh, ''is a sad day."
Just after 6, Bruins president Harry Sinden, flanked by interim general manager Jeff Gorton, announced that general manager Mike O'Connell, 50, had been relieved of his duties after nearly six seasons at the helm. The coaching staff, headed by Mike Sullivan, is safe for now, said Sinden.
Sinden, who called it an agonizing decision because of his longstanding friendship with O'Connell, said he didn't feel as though he had a choice.
''It's basically been dictated by the fact that the postseason is probably out of sight for us," said Sinden. ''We felt we probably would be doing this at the end of the year. It was not proper to let Mike continue doing what he's been doing, such as signing players, making plans for the future, when we basically knew at the end of the year we were probably going to relieve him of his job.
''It was made to correct what was becoming a rather awkward situation with the GM of the team and myself and the ownership in that we were contemplating making this move just recently -- we knew we were probably going to make it -- and asking someone to continue on in the job, which is just not the proper thing to do."
No one would dispute that the 2005-06 season has been a disaster for Boston. After losing a full year to the lockout, the Bruins had to scramble to field a team when it became clear that their business plan going forward was seriously flawed. They expected a buyer's market with plenty of talented, affordable unrestricted free agents to choose from; instead, it was very much a seller's market, with the salaries much higher than the Bruins anticipated. That made the sting of losing important core players such as Mike Knuble, Brian Rolston, and Sean O'Donnell that much worse.
O'Connell was charged with putting together a full roster in a very short amount of time, and it never jelled. Then he was then forced into playing ''Let's Make A Deal," to try to right the ship.
The closest the Bruins came to a run was prior to the Olympic break when goalie Tim Thomas caught fire after being recalled from Providence and helped Boston to an 8-3-4 mark. But Thomas ran out of gas, and so did the team. Since then, the Bruins have gone downhill: 4-8-2 in the 14 contests post-break, including last night's 5-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
''Prior to the Olympic break, it appeared that we had a chance to get back in the playoff hunt," said Sinden. ''And when we fell out of it very substantially in the last 10 days, we went back to our original thinking in that we'd probably have to make some changes and that GM job being one of them at the end of the year."
Sinden acknowledged that the organizational mess extends far beyond the job O'Connell did. There were plenty of miscalculations on the part of the front office.
''We didn't expect to start the season with three signed players and really not have an opportunity to select a team from a group of players that we thought we would have available to us," he said. ''That didn't happen, and Mike said at one time we were flawed in our belief -- not so much in our thinking, but in our belief."
In that regard, Sinden said O'Connell was dealt a bad hand.
''If you could fully understand the situation -- and I don't expect you to because it's a complex situation and it has been a complex situation in planning and managing these teams for the past two or three years prior to the lockout -- but if you were able to, and I don't say that as if you couldn't if you had access to all the facts, I just say that I can't quite understand it totally myself so probably you can't either," said Sinden.
Sinden said O'Connell took the news as well as could be expected.
''Mike was the gentleman he's always been when I spoke to him," said Sinden. ''He said it was not unexpected given the results thus far of the team and he felt no animosity at that time."
Gorton, 37, has been with the Bruins for 14 seasons, the past 12 in hockey operations. For the past six, he's served as assistant GM and has been in charge of coordinating the scouting department as well as handling the club's duties leading into the NHL entry draft. He also has been involved in contract negotiations and arbitration hearings. Sinden said Gorton will be seriously considered as O'Connell's successor.
''Jeff Gorton as interim manager, you should not worry about the running of this team," said Sinden. ''He has been handed by Mike O'Connell almost all of the responsibilities of a GM in the last three or four years and he's very capable of handling anything that comes up for the remainder of this year. We're probably going to consider a number of applicants and candidates for the job but Jeff Gorton is one of them and will be given every consideration going forward in a permanent capacity."
For Gorton, it was a time of mixed emotions.
''Obviously, it's been a difficult day," he said. ''I've worked with Mike for a long time, he's a good friend of mine. I spoke to him and certainly this is a job I've always wanted and dreamed about having but under these circumstances isn't really how I would've drawn it up."
With 10 games remaining, and as far out of it as the Bruins are (13th out of 15 clubs in the Eastern Conference), a postseason spot seems nothing but a pipe dream.
''We mathematically have a chance to make the playoffs," said Sinden. ''As Yogi said, it's never over till it's over."
But for O'Connell, it's over now.