August 10, 2011

From NEHJ: Neely's presidential presence key in B's return to glory

By Jesse Connolly

When Peter Chiarelli arrived in Boston in 2006, the newly appointed general manager was faced with the tall task of bringing back a winning tradition to a slumping franchise. His goal from Day One was to return an Original Six squad to its roots and somehow reshape not only a roster but also an entire organization that had lost its once-unbreakable bond with its blue-collar fan-base. 

Bruins legend Cam Neely -- who lost in two finals as a player with the Bruins -- hoists the Stanley Cup as the club�s president. (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bruins legend Cam Neely -- who lost in two finals as a player with the Bruins -- hoists the Stanley Cup as the club's president. (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The acquisition of Zdeno Chara was certainly a big stride in the right direction, as Chiarelli aimed to build around the 6-foot-9 Slovak similar to the way in which his predecessors anchored their squads around legends Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque, but the Bruins needed someone in the front office to spearhead their quest to return the team to its glory days.

They needed an individual who embodied what the Black and Gold once were all about, a man who knew full well how much the city of Boston cherished their hard-working Bruins teams of yesteryear that had the perfect blend of snarl and skill, someone who could instill a sense of pride in sporting the Spoked-B that had long been missing.

Quite simply, they needed Cam Neely.

In September 2007, the Hall of Fame forward was appointed vice president of the Bruins. Over the past four seasons, under the guidance of the man whose No. 8 hangs in the rafters at TD Garden, the Bruins have climbed back to the top of the NHL mountain, reinvigorating the region’s once-dormant love affair with the Black and Gold in the process.

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“(Principal) Charlie Jacobs had kind of brought me back in the fold and had me go to some premium events and what-not a few times a year,” Neely said when asked how joining the front office all came together. “That summer of 2007, before I accepted the position, I met with Peter Chiarelli, and he asked if I had any interest in coming back on board from a management perspective. That really kind of intrigued me.

“After talking with Peter a number of different times and understanding what his philosophy was, and sitting down with Charlie again just to get a better understanding of where ownership was coming from, I said to let me see how it goes for a year. I didn’t want to commit to anything more than a year because I really wanted to see if I enjoyed doing it and how comfortable I’d feel working with the management and ownership group at that time.”

While Neely was initially leery of locking himself in, it didn’t take long for him to find out whether or not he thought he was cut out for the job.

“I never felt I was in over my head and never felt uncomfortable about being back involved,” he said. “Quite frankly, it was the opposite. I was more excited than I expected to be and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. I enjoyed working with Charlie and Peter, seeing what was taking place on the ice and getting involved with the players on road trips and having conversations with them. That stuff I enjoyed more than I expected to.”

The three-time 50-goal scorer grew into his role quickly, taking young players such as Milan Lucic — who has drawn comparisons to Neely since his arrival — under his wing, while progressively becoming more outspoken about the team’s needs and unabashedly critical of the Bruins’ performance when necessary.

“It’s an interesting transition going from someone that really had a say in what was happening to being in the position now to be more vocal and kind of get involved at a different level,” said Neely, who was promoted to president last year. “But, I certainly knew that was what was expected from ownership. I had numerous conversations before I accepted the role of president with Charlie and Mr. (Jeremy) Jacobs, just to see if what they were looking for was something I was comfortable with.

“I have a pretty good idea of what they want and I have an idea of what I’d like to see and how I’d like to see our team. It works well with the group that’s been in here with Peter, Don Sweeney and Jim Benning. As every year passes, you’re going to have peaks and valleys, and ups and downs. There’s challenges along the way you just have to work through.”

No challenge Neely or any management group in the team’s eight-plus decades of existence was tougher than the one the Bruins’ front office faced last summer. Boston qualified for the postseason in each of Neely’s first three years on the job but, for a team looking to end a lengthy championship drought, the third time around was anything but the charm.

“It wasn’t something that you wanted to be associated with, as far as being a team that gives up a 3-0 lead,” Neely said of the Bruins’ monumental collapse against the Flyers a year ago. “But that’s the position we were in. It’s what we had to deal with and it’s what we had to live with. We made an effort not to sweep it under the rug, but to learn from it.”

Neely and Co. had an infinite number of directions to go as the offseason began, as many speculated that the Bruins’ core players didn’t have what it took to win and that coach Claude Julien simply wasn’t the right person to guide them there. The Bruins made a few tweaks, including the oh-so-important acquisition of eventual playoff hero Nathan Horton, but for the most part, Neely and the rest of management maintained faith in those that suffered through that gut-wrenching implosion against Philadelphia.

“I think our players, coaches and management all learned a great deal from what happened, from being a part of a team that went through that,” Neely said. “I think you saw that this year as those learning experiences really helped us. It’s not something you want to go through, but we certainly weren’t going to hide from it.”

After watching the Bruins climb out of an 0-2 series deficit in their opening-round series against the Canadiens, Neely quickly realized those hard lessons learned from painful playoff exits were finally paying off for this band of Bruins.

“When I saw how we got better and better as a team as each series progressed, the whole lineup adjustments the coaching staff made and the way Tim Thomas was playing, as we got into the third round, I thought we had a really good chance to win the Stanley Cup,” said Neely, the Bruins’ all-time leader with 55 playoff goals. “You don’t want to look too far ahead and you try not to do that, but as we got into that final round I felt we matched up really well against Vancouver in all areas except for maybe the power play. But, having said that, I felt like we had as good a chance to win as they did.”

While few outside of Boston echoed such sentiments, Neely’s words rang true as the Bruins hung in there with the President’s Trophy winners and forced a decisive seventh game. With a 4-0 win by the Bruins at Rogers Arena on June 15, Neely finally achieved a goal he’d been striving for since joining the Bruins as a 21-year-old kid back in 1986, as the Bruins captured the Cup for the first time in nearly four decades.

“It was such an unreal experience on the ice to be down there, knowing you’re Stanley Cup champions,” said Neely, a British Columbia native who originally came to Boston in a trade with Vancouver more than 25 years ago. “Just that alone was an amazing feeling. But the moment you hear Gary Bettman talk about us being Stanley Cup champs and congratulating the organization, the ownership and myself, it was a great, great feeling. It was a very special moment, obviously for the whole organization, but for our fan base.”

While winning it all was an immeasurably gratifying experience for Neely on a personal level, as the beloved power forward fell short in two trips to the finals with Boston in 1988 and 1990, rewarding the Bruins’ loyal legion of fans with its first title since 1972 has always been his biggest source of motivation.

“It’s really truly a special feeling to be able to involved with that because I just know how passionate these fans are,” he said. “I had the privilege of playing in front of these fans. Now living here for 25 years or so and really knowing what our fans think about and care about, with regards to the organization and the players, to end that long, 39-year drought was certainly well overdue. It’s what they wanted, what they needed and what they deserved. To be a part of the group and the team that brought it back here is pretty special for me.”

Now that the drought is over, Neely’s next mission is to make sure a new one doesn’t begin. With nearly all of their roster intact, however, the 46-year-old has high hopes that the Black and Gold have as good a shot as any recent Stanley Cup winner to defend their title.

“A lot of good things have to happen and go your way in order to win this,” Neely said. “It’s probably one of the hardest professional sports trophies to win. You have to be lucky, you have to be good and you have to get great performances. The thing that’s in our favor more than anything right now is that we’re not losing a lot of players from our Cup-winning team, but you need a lot of things to go your way. But, we should have a really great year next season.”

While it’s certainly true that lucky breaks and outstanding performances are integral parts of surviving the playoff gauntlet to win a championship, great leadership is equally as important.

With a passionate president as deeply connected to the fan base as Neely is at the helm, the Bruins should be poised for plenty more success in the years to come.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com