It’s time for Bruins President Cam Neely to be the leader he is but not quite the one he was as a player. When it comes to hockey personnel decisions within the Boston Bruins management staff, the buck stops with Neely. Just as it was when Neely was elevated from Boston Bruins Vice President to President prior to the 2010-11 season, it was made clear by CEO Charlie Jacobs and owner Jeremy Jacobs Wednesday, that Neely has and will have the final say on all things hockey within the Bruins organization.
“I say without question this is Cam,” the CEO said. “If people were to ask who is head of hockey operations, it’s a collaborative effort between a number of people. But if you ask for one sort of name I would say it’s Cam Neely.”
His father concurred.
“The accountability actually is with Cam in this organization,” the owner said. “He’s my leader right now and I ride with him.”
So why then, even with that affirmation just under six years after his promotion to the Oval office of hockey on Causeway Street, are the Boston media and Bruins fans still not buying it? Seems like a simple answer from here: accountability and leadership.
Yes that’s right! The very things that defined Neely as a player, are not defining him as team President. The passion and those glaring eyes that stared into the eyes of Claude Lemieux before slamming his face into the Boston Globe dasher board ad at the old Boston Garden or that did the same before exacting revenge on Ulf Samuelsson remain. They always will. But the problem with Cam Neely, the hockey-business man, is that thus far he has been Cam Neely the player. Some may point to lack of experience and say that Neely was brought back into the Bruins organization ten years after he retired as a figurehead and link to the last stand of the Big Bad Bruins image the Bruins held from the early seventies to the early nineties and that is a valid point. But even though Neely never had an ounce of experience being the man in charge of an NHL team before he was named President in 2010, he was mentored by a Stanley Cup winning coach as well as former President and GM Harry Sinden, when he served as Assistant GM of the Black and Gold from 2007-10.
Last year at this time, as the Bruins were searching for a new general manager to replace the fired Peter Chiarelli, it was reported by Stephen Harris of the Boston Herald that Sinden, who is listed as a Senior Advisor for the Bruins, was playing a role in that search and would have an increased say in the hockey operations. But make no mistake, Sinden was already playing an important role in helping Neely prepare to guide the ship. Here’s Sinden when Neely was first hired as President in 2010:
“Well, when Cam first arrived here at training camp it didn’t take long to see that we had a special player in that particular training camp before he had even played a game with the team,” said Sinden. “Before he arrived here three years ago and he got into management of the business, and became an executive in the business, it wasn’t very long before I felt the same thing about his future and our goal. I think he was gifted as a player and is very, very gifted as a management person, so I think Mr. Jacobs and Charlie are going to be very, very proud of him.”
Like him or not, Sinden won one Stanley Cup as a coach and as a GM was part of the Bruins’ 29 straight appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs ( a record in the four major North American professional sports leagues) including making the Stanley Cup Finals five times (1974, 1977, 1978, 1988, 1990) and two regular-season first-place finishes (1983, 1990). Neely — who played on those finals teams in 1988 and 1990 — was one of the greatest leaders in pro sports that this puck scribe ever saw. But he cannot be that same leader now. Neely needs to channel that passion in a different way and act more like his mentor, Harry Sinden, but do so with a unique touch of his own trademark drive to win and the rationality of Sinden.
The Jacobs’ may have given Neely the (dreaded?) vote of confidence last week, but make no doubt, as was reported here April 13, that confidence could very well turn to a pink slip or reassignment in the organization if the Bruins miss the playoffs for a third straight season. As that has become clearer to Neely since he gave the pink slip to Chiarelli, he has distanced himself from blame and seemingly let his emotions run their course in player personnel decisions and lately with the media. With two straight seasons of no playoff hockey for the team he shed blood, sweat and tears for and lost his knee and hip for, Neely is feeling the heat from his boss, the media and suddenly from the passionate Bruins fan base that always adored him for the passion he displayed every time he donned the spoked B on his chest as a player. That love for the Bruins hall of fame player will always be there, but after six seasons as Commander In Chief of the hockey department, the shine of that hall of fame career is wearing off and no longer hiding the mistakes that the team’s hockey brass have made under his watch.
As he clearly showed in the season-ending press conference with Charlie and Jeremy Jacobs last Wednesday as well as on ‘The Felger & Mazz Show’ on 98.5 The Sports Hub the day after, this is not what Neely — who unless because of injury — never missed the playoffs as a Bruins player — signed up for. Suddenly being team President has him rattled like a Samuelsson cheap-shot.
“I’m angry. First of all, I hate missing playoff hockey. Obviously, I bear some responsibility for that,” Neely told Felger and Mazz. “I understand that you all have a job to do but the questions sometimes are aggravating because its more about stirring the pot than finding out [expletive] information.”
The questions Neely is referring to are the ones the local Boston media are finally asking as well as plenty of loyal fans. Questions like whether Neely was directly or indirectly responsible for much maligned moves like trading away budding young stars like Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton or key players such as Johnny Boychuk and Reilly Smith? Neely, as well as the Jacobs’, signed off on those aforementioned deals. Or was he behind taking a complete 180 from the Red Wings style rebuild Jeremy Jacobs referred to last Wednesday and trading for impending UFA’s and marginal players? Instead of finding any way possible to trade away their own UFA trade chip Loui Eriksson who very likely will enter free agency July 1. Is wrong for the media and fans to ask why Eriksson could not have netted at least a first round pick? In the eyes of many, including myself, Neely, likely influenced by ownership, decided it was more important to just make the playoffs and make those extra millions at the gate instead of staying the course in the soft rebuild. Every single move that has been made with Neely as President had his signature on it and not even Neely denies that. So are those questions stirring the pot or bonafide attempts to find out the truth?
Neely has repeatedly cited lack of communication during Chiarelli’s tenure as GM, but he had the chance to ask questions and veto any move he deemed wrong or unnecessary. Yet every time Neely and the Jacobs have been pressed for answers since Chiarelli was dismissed and even now with Don Sweeney as GM, the Jacobs defer to Neely, Sweeney or the no longer present Chiarelli. Neely meanwhile accepts some blame but takes every chance to either blame Chiarelli for the salary cap mess the Bruins found themselves in after the 2013-14 season or make it clear he’s now letting Sweeney “do his job.”
“One of the things that has been refreshing is Don likes to talk hockey – not just with me, but with Mr. Jacobs, Charlie, with the coaching staff, all the coaches, all the players,” Neely said Wednesday to much of the Boston media that has let his career serve as a teflon shield, but the second they cast any doubt on him, he calls them out.
Regrettably, I have not asked this when given the chance, and last Wednesday my esteemed colleagues didn’t either, but thankfully ‘Felger and Mazz’ at least hinted to it in their interview the next day and I’ll be a little more blunt here now:
“So wait Cam, did you not have a chance to tell Peter: “Ahhh, Peter, thinking maybe we hold off here and don’t let what we’re hearing about Tyler off the ice, dictate what he likely can do on the ice? Just wondering, because according to this clip on ‘Behind The B’ on NESN you did.
Now there are plenty of stories about Seguin having off-ice issues that led to his demise with the Bruins management, coaching staff and even teammates. To this point though, none of that has been proven and frankly that’s not really the business of anyone besides Seguin and the team until they decide otherwise. But what we can tell you is that according to a well-placed source there was indeed pressure from above on Neely and subsequently Chiarelli to trade the 2010 second overall pick before his no-trade clause kicked in. That could be because of money or something else or both. We’ll likely never know. But if indeed Neely passed along orders to Chiarelli to move Seguin, should he, as the hockey boss, not have made sure the Bruins got the best hockey deal possible?
Was Chiarelli guilty of some salary cap decisions that are still handicapping the Bruins? Yes. Even he would likely agree with that. But he, along with Neely, also committed those cap risks with the blessings of Neely and ownership, in a collective effort to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 seasons, make the Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals two years later and put together another contender in the 2013-14 President’s Trophy winners. As Jacobs pointed out, it’s a collaborative effort and it should’ve been one to repair what was exposed when the Canadiens beat the Bruins in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals. But yet Neely and ownership, subtly and not so subtly, continue to feed the ‘blame Chiarelli’ machine.
“I think if you look at some of the better teams that are playing [in the playoffs] right now, you can count their drafts and it’s upwards of 10 or 12 players or 13 players in their lineups that they’ve drafted and developed,” Neely told reporters last Wednesday.
Did Chiarelli trade Hamilton? Nope. But the elder Jacobs decided to take it even further when discussing the lack of productive drafting and development.
“The ‘invest mode’ [comment] is looking at where your draft picks are, how they’ve evolved, whether they’re even successful or not, and seeing that you’re moving that next generation into your game,” said the owner. “So when you have cap issues, as we have and had, that you’re not forced into the position we’ve been put into, as explained by their having to make some serious changes with regard to the personalities that you have and the characters you have on your team.”
So then circling back to that curiosity of who’s in charge and who’s been in charge, why do Neely and the Jacobs heap this somewhat passive blame on Chiarelli? Did Chiarelli trade Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s deadweight contract for the underachieving Jimmy Hayes? They may try to link that to the cap issues but keeping Marc Savard on long-term injury reserve wasn’t hurting their cap and Smith for Hayes was give or take a $1 million difference in terms of cap hits. Give Neely and the Jacobs credit though, at least they haven’t tried to defend letting Shawn Thornton walk and then in an effort to replace that grit and leadership, allow Sweeney to acquire Zac Rinaldo in exchange for a third round draft pick in 2017.
When Sinden called the shots with roster decisions, he did so in an even keeled manner. Did he get called out by the media at times? Of course. Was he testy and did he give snarky answers to pressing questions as Neely did to a reporter in the press conference last Wednesday? Yes and he even used “yodeling” references to do so. But he also was sly and guarded with his emotions. A perfect example of that was the highway robbery he committed acquiring Neely from the Vancouver Canucks in 1986. But for all the good moves Sinden made, he also knew he had to carry out his orders from Jacobs and be wary of the bottom line.
In the new salary cap era that Jacobs helped orchestrate, the longtime Bruins owner has spent to the cap but make no mistake, the bottom line still plays a role in business and hockey decisions and that seems to be the hard lesson Neely is learning now. It’s very possible, Neely is starting to experience déjà vu and think back to most of his career when the Bruins were good enough to contend but just missing one or two more top tier players to really contend for the Stanley Cup. That could explain him riding the blame train but not quite driving it. However, as Neely the player always wanted, Neely the President wants another Stanley Cup and it’s time for him to take the lessons he’s learned from Sinden, even Chiarelli and now Sweeney, and combine them with that burning passion he still possesses.
“Do I need to stand up and pound my chest, be like a lot of others that say ‘It’s all me!’ Do I need to wear a C on my suit jacket?” Neely asked ‘Felger and Mazz’ in frustration. “I’m all about ‘let’s have discussions, let’s be collaborative.’ But ultimately, ownership looks at me. … Everybody in the Bruins organization knows who’s in charge, and that’s what matters to me. If other people are unsure, then I can stand on a mountain and yell it, I guess. As long as the people that work for the team know who it is, that’s all that matters for me.”
If that’s so, Neely must be the leader he always was but with calculated passion. No he doesn’t need to be Tarzan or King Kong but he needs to own both good and bad, remain even-keeled and in the process hopefully make the Bruins a perennial contender again. That’s all that matters to the loyal fans that also wore #8 jerseys with pride. Find that happy medium of business that apparently Chiarelli couldn’t after 2011, but also of hockey bliss, that Chiarelli did in managing the team to a Stanley Cup.
“I’m proud of my record in Boston,” Chiarelli recently told Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe. “I’ve turned the page. Maybe they should, too.”
Chiarelli’s right. Neely and Sweeney — whether critics want to see it or not — have done a solid job of freeing up their cap situation and replenishing the system with some solid prospects. Now it’s time for Neely to fully acknowledge whatever role he might have played in any questionable moves during his tenure, turn that page and lead. Or as the ‘Mighty Mighty Bosstones‘ say:
“If you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen get out. It will increase.”