When Harry Sinden stepped down from a full-time role with the Bruins last week, it marked the end of an era. In his many positions with the Original Six franchise -- coach, general manager, and for the last 17 years president -- he never ceased to be a passionate proponent of the game.
He had the courage of his convictions, even when his position wasn't popular, and he wasn't afraid to fight for what he believed in, frequently at the top of his lungs.
``Any time we were doing anything with the rules or the officiating, Harry would always call and say with great intensity, `You've got to focus on this, you've got to make sure this is right,' " said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. ``These were a series of calls that would come over the years where his passion for the game always drove him to push at me as hard as possible to make sure whatever we were doing was the right thing. He was a pit bull when it came to the rules and making sure they were right."
Sinden's duties changed over the years, and in recent years he focused more on the Board of Governors, the Hall of Fame, and the NHL committees he was on, but his heart always was with the Bruins.
Sinden's top aide, Nate Greenberg, said his boss's decision hit him hard.
``It was a day I was never looking forward to," said Greenberg, who has worked for Sinden for 33 years. ``I was always afraid that day would come someday but I never wanted it to come. The thought of Harry not being here, of my not talking to him every day and him being my boss, it's been my whole way of life.
``When Terry O'Reilly retired, Harry started the press conference by saying, `This is a day I've dreaded for a long time. Even though we'll replace him -- it's not like we're going to play a man short -- but we really can't replace him because few brought to the table what O'Reilly brought.'
``He brought a certain intangible that comes along once in a lifetime. I look at Harry's announcement the same way he looked at O'Reilly's. Somebody is going to replace him, but nobody is going to replace him. The same intangible that Terry O'Reilly brought to the ice, that same passion, Harry had it off the ice and still has it."
Greenberg said Sinden bled black and gold. Whenever the club wasn't doing well, it ate him up inside, and that never changed.
``About 20 years ago, he and [his wife] Eleanor were going to a Board of Governors meeting out West," said Greenberg. ``The team had gone into an absolute tailspin, nothing was going right. He decided he had better go to the Governors meeting. The night before he was ready to leave, the Bruins looked awful. The next morning, they got up and went to the airport and checked their bags. Harry had a coffee and was pacing back and forth and he said to Eleanor, `The hell with it, we're not going. I can't leave this team behind.' She goes home, he gets on a plane and goes to wherever the team is and his bags were still checked. He left with his bags still checked on the flight to the Governors meeting. He couldn't stand the thought of not being there to get the thing straightened out."
Sinden never shied away from expressing his opinions, whether to media, players, or members of the organization. He was famous for his one-liners, one of the best of which came in 1992 when he was trying to sign forward Joe Juneau. Juneau wanted a one-way contract but Sinden, feeling burned after he gave one to Wes Walz and it didn't work out, said no. When Juneau threatened to sign in Switzerland, Sinden suggested he learn how to yodel.
``People in Boston remember him as a real good hockey man and remember his battles over money, but what shouldn't be lost is what an innovator he was," said Anaheim GM Brian Burke. ``He was willing to experiment with rule changes, he was willing to listen.
``When I was in charge of the officiating [in the NHL], he called me up when Michigan was playing a triple-overtime game in the NCAA championship and Harry called me during the overtime and he said, `Are you watching this game?' and I said, `Yes.' At that point, they had played 50 minutes of overtime and Harry said, `You mean to tell me there hasn't been one foul worthy of a penalty call?'
``His point was that they didn't want to decide the game in overtime but when they put the whistles away, they were deciding the game in overtime. They were letting the team that fouls the most generally win the game. It was great insight."
Burke likened Sinden to the old E.F. Hutton commercials, where everyone stopped talking to listen to the person who mentioned E.F. Hutton. He cited as an example the summer before the lockout when Burke was among a group of five GMs on a fishing trip with Sinden.
``Usually it's a raucous crowd, guys talking over one another and cursing at one another, but when Harry started to talk, every guy there stopped talking to listen," said Burke. ``It was like that at the GM meetings, it was like that at the Governors meetings. It's still like that. He started talking hockey and you could've heard a pin drop.
``He should be in jail for some of the trades he made. Like the Cam Neely trade; it shouldn't have put him in the Hall of Fame, it should've put him in the penitentiary at Walpole. He's a legend. I have enjoyed my friendship with him so much. I respect, I like him, and I admire him. The public sees Harry as a grouchy guy and he's not. He's got a great sense of humor. He is a funny man."
But dealing with Sinden hasn't been all hearts and flowers for Burke. When he was the dean of discipline in the NHL, Burke said, he and Sinden butted heads on many occasions.
``I remember during the playoffs one year, they were playing New Jersey and one of the Bruins players got cut wide open by a stick," he said. ``I did not suspend the player. I didn't feel it was worthy of a suspension. I'm not sure anyone has ever yelled at me or cursed at me worse than Harry did that day.
``In that job, I had people yelling at me all the time and telling me how stupid I was all the time, but that was a new record. That raised the bar. That was on the phone, but the next time I saw him, he gave me Round 2 in person."
Mike Milbury, who played for, coached for, and was assistant GM under Sinden, said his former boss is a multifaceted individual. Milbury has witnessed many of Sinden's acts of kindness but has also been the object of his wrath.
``I remember when I was playing during my first full season, which was 1976, and I had played in the Canada Cup," said Milbury. ``We got through the Cup and the season started and I was doing an interview and I mentioned that I was a little tired from the Canada Cup. Before the game was over, he was down between periods in my face saying, `How the hell can you be tired? It's October! You work for us now, no more of that Team USA bull.'
``When I was coaching my first year, we had tied in Hartford, and there was one game left before the All-Star break. We got back from Hartford and I was feeling pretty good because we were first overall in the league, and I figured I'd show up and view some videotape. I didn't think anyone would be around, but I got a call when I was in my office.
``He said, `Mike, I need to see you for a minute,' so I went up the office. He said, `You think it's over, right? You think it's time to go on the All-Star break? Don't you know there's another game to play tonight?' He ran me up and down the flagpole for about 45 minutes. Here it was, we were in first place overall in the league. But he was right. I wasn't ready to get the team ready. By 5 o'clock, the doors were closed, the media was kicked out, and I was kicking over garbage cans. We wound up in a hell of a game and we tied Calgary, 2-2. His finger was always on the pulse of the team."
On the flip side, Milbury said, when times were tough, Sinden always came through for those around him, whether it members of his own family or members of the Bruins family.
``One of the tough moments in his career had to have been when Norman Leveille went down," said Milbury. ``I can remember the compassion and thought and everything that went into Norman's care. It was an amazing expression of compassion over months and really years to help him out.
``He's one of the most loyal people I know. This is a compassionate, loyal guy who cares more about the team than anybody. He was a very responsible businessman, which is part of being the general manager. I know the hundreds and thousands of things he's done to touch people in the community without ever looking for a pat on the back."
For the most part, Milbury said, Sinden is misunderstood by the Bruins fandom. Although the club's last Stanley Cup was in 1972, when Sinden was working a brief stint in private industry, Milbury believes the job Sinden did has been substantially successful.
``In 1979, we were, in my opinion, one too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties from winning a Stanley Cup," said Milbury. ``The Rangers might have a difference of opinion on that because we would've faced them in the finals, but I think they were too busy disco-ing at the time.
``In 1990, what happened in the triple-overtime loss [in Game 1] was we lost our starting goalie [Andy Moog] to fatigue; he never recovered. Although we managed to win a game in Edmonton, we didn't recover from that one."
Milbury said Sinden's legacy will be that he had high expectations for those around him, in the dressing room and outside it.
``The consistency of effort in his tenure was unsurpassed," said Milbury. ``There were a lot of very good teams there. The championships didn't line up, but there were very few years under Harry's reign where Boston fans didn't leave the building feeling proud about the effort the team gave.
``That is what probably marked his tenure: He demanded effort from his players, and if he didn't get it, well, there were plenty of closed-door meetings. He could be a riveting speaker, and in the locker room that was especially so, but none of those stories are printable."