The Bruins are a team that represents something different to everyone. They’re the last team in this great era of Boston sports to win it all (oddly enough, the Patriots are the current title “drought” holders in the area), but it wasn’t for lack of talent. They’ve had some good teams over the years since their previous win in 1972 in the hey-day of Orr and Bucyk. My favorite team was the 1992 team featuring Neely, Oates, Moog, and the great Ray Bourque. I wanted desperately for them to win, but they came up short in the conference finals against Pittsburgh.
The strange part about this year’s team is that going into the season, few fans really felt confident that this was “the year.” The Bruins were coming off a heart-breaking conference finals collapse to the Flyers, but it wasn’t all that disappointing considering their sixth place finish in the Eastern Conference.
Things were in flux to start this season. Do you remember who was the starting goaltender for the season opener in Prague? Tuuka Rask. Tim Thomas, the recently crowned Conn Smythe winner, was the back-up. And this wasn’t even “the year” for this team. Two years ago, they finished top in the Eastern Conference. This year they finished third. Few people thought they could beat Washington or Tampa Bay, let alone San Jose or Vancouver later on. Things didn’t start off well, down 2-0 to Montreal, the historical nemesis for the Bruins. At that point, many people felt that if the team made it to the conference finals, it would have been a good year.
Somehow, the Bruins fell into an area where few teams who win it all do: they were neither a complete under-dog or a favorite. They kept winning series with little pressure. Through grit and hustle, they beat teams with more talent and scoring power. Their power play was abysmal for most of the playoffs. They were hot and cold on offense. Tim Thomas was a rock in goal.
What makes this team different than the 2009 or 1992 (or the promising 1990 and 2004 teams)? I think it’s Cam Neely.
Neely (who played for Vancouver to start his career before coming to Boston) was a hard-working fiery player who got results. Injuries plagued his career, but it was his grit that people loved. Neely came to the Bruins in 1986, and had a terrific career until retiring in 1996 with almost no cartilage left in his knees.
Neely never won with the Bruins as a player. In 1990 they ran into the red hot Edmonton Oilers starring Gretzky and Messier. In 1992 he was injured and could not help the team overcome Pittsburgh in the conference finals. Then the Bruins went into a funk while Neely’s ability to play effectively dwindled for several years. Neely retired in 1996 with 694 career points (and 1,241 penalty minutes) and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005.
In September of 2007, Neely was appointed Vice President of the Bruins, and was promoted to President exactly a year ago today – 364 days from President to Stanley Cup champ. Neely’s grit and hustle trickled down to his team in how it played and, more importantly, how it was built. Neely has repeatedly stated that he believes in the Bruins depth. There are no real stars beyond the giant captain Zdeno Chara, and I think Neely was aiming for that. The team got results from all four lines during the playoffs, and it simply wore down the Canucks towards the end. By the third period of last night’s game, you could see it right in front of you: Vancouver was spent.
What Neely has done as an executive is remarkable. Claude Julien has finally earned the respect he deserves as a coach. The Bruins are champions again. And it’s sunny outside!