Many loyal Bruins followers took heart a little over one year ago when the Boston Bruins ownership and management announced that NHL Hall of Famer Cam Neely was joining the Black and Gold front office as a Vice President, and would carry a strong voice in the day-to-day operations of the then-beleaguered hockey franchise.
Unlike many figurehead alumni that can potentially skulk around the building and smile for photo ops while hanging on their former club’s payroll, Neely has intensely dug into the fray with both hands — as he does with just about everything in his life — and the prototypical power forward has had a Jedi Master-like effect on promising players like his young apprentice Milan Lucic and the skilled Blake Wheeler.
At the time of his hiring, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was wholeheartedly on board with the move and his ability to evaluate hockey talent — both on the Bruins and within the league — has already provided dividends to the B’s front office. Bruins fans knew that the proud, almost-regal Neely was going to do everything possible – short of dropping the gloves and pummeling mediocrity with those powerful fists — to get the Boston hockey club headed in the right direction.
Well, it’s time for Chiarelli, Benning, Neely and Co. to take a bow – and perhaps start talking contract extension with the Jacobs Family — and continue promoting the brilliant, rugged, compelling product they’ve pieced together on the ice. In that vein, here’s the transcription of an interview Neely gave with 850 WEEI’s “The Big Show” yesterday afternoon that covered a whole range of subjects. Here’s the interview:
So much has been made of Tim Thomas, but a lot hasn’t been made about the depth that you have this year and that you’re able to throw three lines out there. How has that made a difference? CM:Well, I think it’s made a big difference and I would even make the argument that we can throw four lines out there. Our fourth line has contributed in a number of different ways and the other night we actually got a couple of goals from them as well. I don’t know how many other teams can say that.
We have three lines that we’re talking about that can create offense and give other teams fits in the offensive zone, and then our fourth line we’ve seen over the course of the season will actually carry play against the fourth lines of other teams.
Are you surprised that the team has had the success that they’d had thus far despite the fact that a number of veterans have struggled a bit in the early going? CM: From an organizational standpoint we looked at last year’s playoffs as an extraordinarily big learning curve for a lot of the young guys on this team. For them to understand what it takes to play in this league on a regular basis, and then this year come in with the attitude that ‘we did a little bit more than was expected, but we’ve also got to keep reaching for that next rung on the ladder.’
The young guys have certainly come in and done that. Some of our older or veteran players maybe haven’t found their stride yet, but they’re contributing in different ways and maybe just not yet necessarily on the score sheet. You guys brought up the depth part of it and it does really show the depth we have as an organization. The younger guys have been able to contribute and you’ve seen that Claude has really shuffled the deck with the lines over the course of the year to reward some of the younger guys with ice time. He’s done that without taking away how he distributes the ice time.
With all of the success that you’ve had thus far, do you have an eye ahead to getting past the first round of the playoffs and how does that manifest itself early in the season? CM: From a player’s perspective, you don’t want them thinking too far ahead about the playoffs. You’re thinking about how you’re playing today and what do I have to do to get ready for tomorrow. That’s the mindset that Claude and the coaching staff have in that locker room to focus on who your opponent is that night and then who you’re playing next.
From a management perspective, you’re certainly looking at how this team is shaping up heading into the second half of the year and then into the playoffs. We’ve got a really good hockey club here that can make some noise in the playoffs, and we’re always constantly looking at how we can improve and that doesn’t matter how well we’re doing in the standings right now.
Knowing that the fans in Boston really enjoy the physical brand of hockey and that you’re playing that style, how much is that going to play into getting fans back into that building? CM: You have to win and that’s obviously staring you right in the face. But I can tell you this, we know what our fans like and what kinds of players they like. You can go back to that Dallas game and that was an entertaining hockey game that’s got everything that our fans love about the game of hockey.
One of the things that happened is when the league expanded you tried to cater to a newer fan, and unfortunately to a degree the older cities, the Original Six cities, kind of have to suffer along with that. We’re trying to get that back a little bit about how our fans grew up watching [the game]. For example, if I’m introducing my children to the game now then it’s not the game that my father introduced me to, nor is it the game that maybe my grandfather introduced to my father.
It’s a little different in that generation, but it’s very clear when we’re talking to our scouting staff that we’re looking for Bruins-type players. Obviously you want skill because skill helps you win hockey games and win championships, but we want that skill but also with an element of what a Boston Bruin really is.
So you’re talking about the physical aspect of the game, but you’re not going to go back to the Don Cherry fighting videos? CM: Yeah, I don’t know if the league is going to let us go back to that.
Talking about Blake Wheeler, he’s so young and he seems to be getting better all the time. CM: He’s got a lot of skill and he certainly is going to improve as time goes on. He’s somebody that personally I’d love to see shoot a little more at times. At times I see him looking for the pass and he’s not a very selfish player, but at times you have to be a selfish player in this game. He protects the puck well and he’s got a good shot.
He’s a guy in our organization that we’re fortunate to have. He wasn’t one of our draft picks, but we ended up getting him for nothing and he’s going to end up being a very good player for us. I know people around here appreciate watching a player like that.
What is it going to take for people outside this area to recognize how good a job Tim Thomas has done? CM: It’s an interesting question and something we really don’t have an answer for. To be left off the ballot was really shocking to a lot of us especially considering that he played in the All-Star game last year, so you would think he’d automatically be on the ballot this year.
A lot of it has to do with, quite honestly, the lack of success that the team has had over the last couple of years while Tim has been playing here. If you’re not really showcased in the playoffs then people begin to forget pretty quickly what you did in that season. I know Tim’s making a lot of noise this year with how he’s played and statistically he’s among the leaders if he’s not leading them. I think it’s going to make people sit up and notice Tim Thomas, but having said that — let’s be honest — players generally make names for themselves playing in the playoffs. If the way Tim’s playing now continues through the season and then into the playoffs, then people will notice what type of job he’s done for us.
How much of it is also perception that he’s a lifelong backup or journeyman? CM: There’s no question. You in the media would probably know better than me what the perception of somebody is.
Clearly Thomas is your Number One goaltender, correct? CM: Claude is going to go with the guy that he feels will have the most success against a certain team, and as you saw on the West Coast trip…he went with Tim because of how he played in Edmonton and Vancouver. We are fortune that Manny plays very well for us whenever he’s in the lineup and he gives the guys the same kind of confidence as when Tim is in the lineup. It’s not a bad problem right now to have when you have two goalies that can win you a hockey game.
I think the other aspect of who’s going to play is who’s hot, does somebody need a rest or what kind of success have they had against the opposing team.
You’ve got to really hope the success just keeps on coming for a team that’s white-hot right now. CM: It’s exciting and I know a lot of people are excited and there’s a lot of talk away from the building about the Bruins, which is nice. I certainly know through the years that this is a very strong hockey market and they’ve been anxiously awaiting a reason to come back. It’s nice to see them bet back in the building, and it’s a style of play that our fans are excited to watch, we’re winning some hockey games and it’s good to see them back.
People argue that it’s a baseball town, it’s a football town, it’s a hockey team…it’s a winning town. If the team is winning then the base is already there to build on, and people are already seeing the difference. There’s also a lot of afternoon games coming up, which is great around the holidays. CM: When I first got here it was really the first time – I remember we didn’t have any afternoon games in Vancouver — but I thought it was the best thing in the world that you just get up in the morning and go play.
The type of fans in that building you’re able to get a lot of kids into the building, and the youth hockey players from the area. I think it’s fantastic and those guys are fun for the family and quite frankly the players love playing in those games as well because they see all the families in the stands. And every player remembers what it was like to go into a building to watch their first hockey game.