|CAM NEELY Face of franchise|
A winger and a prayer
Can Neely achieve front-office goals?
Cam Neely did many great things for the Bruins as a player, back in a time that now seems pure fantasy or cruel hoax when compared with the painful, hollow experience that the Black-and-Gold art has become here in the Hub of Hockey.
On the ice, Neely was the rare bird (now extinct) who could will things to happen, be it by his powerful shot and vastly underrated puckhandling, or simply crushing an opponent's nose with a longshoreman's left hook. It was powerful, raw, and sometimes cruel stuff. That would play as barbaric to the wine-and-brie group of today, but it's true. Those who packed the stands and spiked the TV ratings couldn't get enough of it.
Neely, who signed on Tuesday as a Bruins vice president, his duties to "evolve," according to one of his bosses, Charlie Jacobs, now will have an even greater task than any of those 618 games he played for the club. He will have the ears of both Jacobs and Peter Chiarelli, the second-year general manager, and they'll be counting on him to tell them how to extract the franchise from its current morass, and regain its place in the hearts of a fandom that has left the building, stopped watching NESN, tossed away the newspaper, and removed the faded picture of a flying Bobby Orr off its sacred spot on the garage wall.
Whatever the Bruins were, they are no more. If anyone suspects there is an ounce of pleasure in writing that, or living it, then you must be new to this shrinking acre of the Sunday sports section.
Here's the good news for Neely: It can't get worse. He's buying in low, even lower than the pre-Orr Bruins of the late '50s and early '60s. The Bruins today are New Orleans-after-Katrina low, and in theory it should be easier to reassemble one ramshackle franchise than an entire city gone asunder.
Now, from a functional standpoint, how must all this work?
First, Neely must come up with good ideas. He then must convince Jacobs or Chiarelli of the viability and worth of these ideas. Said ideas must be implemented. And then - quick sprinkle of pixie dust here - the ideas have to help turn around a franchise that one former Causeway Street employee not long ago said was the equivalent of trying to turn around the QE2 in the Charles River Basin.
Neely said a few times last week that he didn't want a Bruins team that aimed simply to pick off one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. He wants a club that realistically vies for the Stanley Cup. In other words, he wants what most everyone else around here has wanted the last 35 years, and believed until the mid-'90s that it was always just about to happen, even while the game changed and the front office went into a very deep and costly sleep.
Neely can make Jacobs and Chiarelli listen. That part is easy. They brought him aboard because they've identified him not so much as the rainmaker, but at least as someone who can see through the clouds.
Neither Chiarelli nor Jacobs outright referred to Neely as the face of the franchise, but that is what he is, at least from a PR/fan standpoint. That perception is a big part of why they hired him. That alone is a start. The few fans who remain desperately want someone, or something, to call their own, embrace. Thus far, they haven't warmed up to the likes of Zdeno Chara or Marc Savard, and for all the bells and whistles in the new building, hockey fans don't give a hoot about honking horns or dazzling billboards if the game they're watching plays flatter than a dinner plate of Vermont maple syrup.
For this really to work, for Neely to deliver a different sort of thump to an ossified franchise, he must be much more than a face. Frankly, he has to be the brains of the Bruins, and the facilitator, the guy who helps spot players, aids in dealing for them and/or cultivating them. He has to know what fans think, what they want, what will bring those who once loved the sport back to the building, or more likely, entice an entirely new generation to bond today with a product that their friends wouldn't touch even if a ticket came with a free FEMA-certified HazMat suit.
This, folks, is a very tall order for a man who once walked as tall as anyone in this town. Neely is smart, sincere, bold, and quick-tempered, the latter trait bound to catch some of his front-office freres by surprise one day. The man does have a history of "going off," in case you didn't notice.
Maybe Neely has the goods, or at least some of them. First and foremost, he will have to get up to speed quickly on the individual pluses and minuses of 800-1,000 of the best players in the world. Only then will he be able to whisper in his bosses' ears something like the late Bart Bradley once did with Harry Sinden.
Bradley, the Bruins' top talent evaluator, called from his Vancouver home in the spring of '86 to tell Sinden that this brooding Neely kid left sitting at the end of the Canucks bench was the real deal. Do what you can to get him, Bradley told Sinden, and on June 6, Neely's 21st birthday, the Bruins became a renewed factor in the NHL power structure. Just like that.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, it's not. The mess we have before us tells us so. And now, whether he is ready or not, able or not, it's on Neely, hoisted up as a guardian angel on the shoulders of Chiarelli and Jacobs, to help move the product from hell to heaven. No doubt he is in for one devil of a time.
Getting down to business with chairman Jacobs
Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, recently named chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors, was in town last week for his club's annual media day. A few of the chairman's thoughts on a variety of subjects:
Project red light
The Bruins wrap up their preseason schedule this afternoon at the Garden with the Islanders in town, and there may or may not be goal judges parked in their customary spots behind the nets. Clubs have been given permission to move the off-ice officials to other locations, making available at least a couple of pricey seats behind the glass at each end of the rink. The Bruins, according to general manager Peter Chiarelli, ultimately will offer those seats for sale, but they have yet to figure out where to spot the judges. "We know it won't be up in the press box on the ninth floor, that's too far," he said. "We'd like it to be somewhere near where they've been all these years, and still allow them a good look at the net."
Toivonen enters his Blue period
Ex-Bruin netminder Hannu Toivonen learned last week that he made the St. Louis varsity, leaving him in a job share with returning veteran Manny Legace. "He's getting better and better," said team president John Davidson. "He's a very good, athletic kid, and we think he'll only get better. He and [goaltending coach Rick] Wamsley have really locked in." Toivonen was flipped to the Blues in July, the Bruins receiving Swedish prospect Carl Soderberg in return. Chiarelli said Soderberg, a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound center, chose not to come to camp this September and will remain abroad all season. "A big kid with real skills," said Davidson. "He may be the kind of kid who just never comes over here - there's no knowing. Some Europeans are just comfortable right where they are."
Mind over matters
After dismissing Dr. Fred Neff, the Bruins went all last season without a team psychologist. Chiarelli confirmed last week that the Florida-based Dr. Frank Lodato will fill that role this season. "His background is motivational-based," said Chiarelli, noting that Lodato has worked with a number of Canadian Football League squads, including the British Columbia Lions. Lodato, 81, grew up not far from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and has worked with a number of pro clubs, including the undefeated '72 Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants. Lodato told the Vancouver Sun last year that NFL teams haven't always been enlightened on the subject of psychology. "Buddy Ryan once said to me, 'You ain't no real psychologist. You ain't crazy enough.' " Lodato said.
Catching some Z's
Back home in Trencin, Slovakia, Zdeno Chara's pals didn't call him "Zee." The moniker, with him throughout his NHL career, was hung on him weeks after he was drafted No. 56 overall by the Islanders in 1996. Ready to report that fall to Prince George (Alberta) in the Western Hockey League, he first went to Edmonton. "The thing is, they couldn't pronounce my first name," recalled Chara. "They were calling me 'Dano' and 'Dino,' and I told them, 'No, you have to put a Z in front. It's Z-deno.' My English wasn't what it is now, and so they just called me 'Zee.' Good enough."
A name on the waiver wire as of Friday afternoon: Josef Boumedienne, a defenseman who had been back in Capitals camp after playing the last three years in Europe, most recently with Karpat. He's a puck mover with some size (6-2, 205). Swedish-born, he played 37 games with the Capitals in 2003-04 and then stayed across the Atlantic when the lockout started in September '04. The Bruins might have to take a look . . . Your faithful puck correspondent, along with Mick Colageo and Matt Kalman, will be back at the mike Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., for the eagerly awaited return of the New England Hockey Journal radio show on 890 ESPN. Tune in or connect through www.hockeyjournal.com. Every Saturday, right through June . . . Ken Campbell at The Hockey News reports that the NHL Players Association would be eager to offer its top job to Michael Weiner, but Weiner is holding out to become the boss of Major League Baseball's PA once Donald Fehr hangs it up. Weiner, of Williams College ('83) and Harvard Law ('86), is the MLBPA's general counsel . . . Ex-Bruin Yan Stastny made it into the final week of Blues camp before he was shipped to Peoria. "He had a good camp," said Davidson. "We played Atlanta the other night, and he put [Bobby ] Holik on his [backside] three times. I mean, shoulder-to-shoulder hits in open ice. He really thumped him." . . . The Thrashers put veteran blue liner Joel Kwiatkowski on waivers. He spent parts of three seasons in Ottawa, where Chiarelli worked up the management ranks. The 6-2, 210-pounder might be another for the Bruins to put on the radar.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.