Friday, October 15, 2010
Cam Neely striving for Cup in Boston
By Joe McDonald ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- Moments after the Boston Bruins lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Philadelphia Flyers this past spring, the elevator doors opened on Level 3 at TD Garden.
Men in dark suits stepped off. There were no conversations. There was only despair.
The Flyers had just mounted one of the biggest comebacks in NHL history, rallying from an 0-3 series deficit to beat the Bruins and advance to the conference finals, and ultimately to the Stanley Cup finals.
The group of men stepping off the elevator had the same expression of disbelief, but one man in particular had an enraged look. His fists were white-knuckled as he broke free of the pack and swiftly made his way to the Bruins' locker room.
Cam Neely is carrying over values from being an NHL player to his job as Bruins president.
Cam Neely hates to lose.
The former Bruins player, hockey legend and Hall of Famer had just completed his third season as a club vice president when the final buzzer sounded that ended the once-promising postseason for the Bruins.
"I hate losing more than I like winning," Neely said. "No matter what I'm doing, no matter what game I play, I don't want to lose. It's been there as long as I can remember, and I'm sure my family will tell you it's been there since day one."
Even though he's no longer wearing a black and gold sweater, those colors run through his hockey veins, and he wants nothing more than to reward the organization and its fans with a Stanley Cup.
That was his goal during his 10-year career in Boston. He came agonizingly close on two occasions but lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup finals in 1988 and again in 1990. Because of injuries, he was forced to retire following the 1996 season.
After his playing days were over, Neely put all his energy into the Cam Neely Foundation, which he established in 1995 with his brother and sisters to support cancer patients and their families. As far as hockey was concerned, he was a spectator.
The Bruins retired his No. 8 in 2004, and he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005.
Then, the organization he gave so much of himself during his career offered him a job as a vice president in 2007. This past summer, he became only the eighth person in club history to be named team president. And let's get one thing straight about his new position -- there's nothing ceremonial about it.
Now he wants more than ever to bring a Stanley Cup to Boston.
"It would mean, from a professional standpoint, everything," Neely said. "As a player, you dream about playing and you dream about winning a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that dream as a player, but I'm fortunate to be in a position now to help put a team on the ice to win a Stanley Cup.
"It's something I want to happen extremely bad because of how close we got and didn't achieve it. And I know what it would mean to the city of Boston, New England in general and, of course, for all of our hockey fans who have been with us for years; I know what it would mean to them. To be a part of a team that would help realize that for them would be really special."
There's no denying his genuineness.
His new role isn't an easy one. He's facing challenges he's never dealt with before, and those challenges include the business aspect of the game. This season will be his fourth in the organization's front office but his first in his new role.
Players have to focus on playing and performing well, and the good players always have that mindset. Neely was, and continues to be, one of those guys. When he was first named one of the team's vice presidents, he wanted to take his talents and knowledge of the game in the direction that would be best for the team, so he concentrated on the on-ice product.
To assume his current role as president, Neely had to learn the product off the ice, too. He had to learn about ticket sales, corporate partnerships and the pricing structure of both those entities.
Neely is still learning, and he's not afraid to ask for advice from those who have done it for years in this game.
"I'm trying to be a sponge," Neely said. "I look at people who have been successful in this game. When I was a player, I certainly wanted to get advice from other players, and now in a management position, I look at people who have had long management careers and have been successful at it."
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When the NHL took over the Staples Center in Los Angeles in June for the draft, Neely and New Jersey Devils president/CEO/general manager Lou Lamoriello spent nearly 30 minutes in the stands talking hockey. Neely recognizes the fact there are many people in this game who have been successful for a long time on the management side. Because Neely is well respected, too, when he asks a question, he usually gets an answer.
Under Lamoriello's leadership, the Devils have won three Stanley Cup titles. He also was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder Category in 2009, so Neely wanted to pick his brain.
"I've seen him around enough to have somewhat of a good relationship, and he's always treated me extremely well all these years," Neely said. "He's a guy who I knew if I needed to pick up the phone and ask him something, he would be there to answer those questions. I took the opportunity at the draft to pick his brain a little bit, and he gave me as much time as I needed and I certainly appreciated that."
Being team president, Neely is in a position in which people need to run things by him on a daily basis, and it's his job to make the best decision for the organization.
"I would say it's new, not strange," Neely said of being the decision-maker. "I certainly welcome the challenge that has been put in front of me. I look forward to that challenge of helping put the best team on the ice, helping the organization become as successful as it can be both on the ice and off the ice."
Not only does he connect with the hockey operations staff, ownership and the players, Neely has his hand on the pulse of Bruins hockey.
"Obviously, having an understanding of our fan base the way I do, having the understanding of the game the way I do, and the one learning curve is the business part of it. I've picked up a lot over the last three years, and I'll continue to," he said.
As most players do, Neely wanted to respect his teammates during his playing career. Now that he's the Bruins' president, he hopes he has the same from the current players.
There's no question he does.
"He means a lot to the whole organization," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "To have a person, hockey player and an icon such as him in the organization only helps. He's done an outstanding job for the community after he retired, and eventually he became our president. I still think he's learning about the business side of hockey, but so far he's doing an outstanding job. We all respect him very much, and it's a great thing."
Even now, when No. 8 walks into the locker room, there's a certain presence about him.
"That will never go away," Chara said. "Once you're a respected hockey player, you'll always be that respected hockey player. Don't forget, he's a Hall of Famer."
While it took Chara a little while to completely understand what it means to wear the Black and Gold, assistant captain Patrice Bergeron learned what it was like as an 18-year-old rookie. He knows having Neely involved will only have a positive effect on the team.
"He's here all the time now, and it's nice to have him around," Bergeron said. "He gives us advice, and he's good. He doesn't get too involved, but when he does, he's always dead-on. If a guy like Cam Neely tells you something, you listen."
Neely wants the relationship he has with the players nowadays to be similar to the one he had with his teammates during his career.
"From my perspective, it really hasn't changed since I got here," Neely said. "I want the players to feel comfortable around me and feel like they can talk to me as easily as they could anybody without them being concerned about what the conversation may be. Whether that happens, or not, is hard for me to answer.
"But the fact I know what they go through, what they have to do to play and what it's like to be a player is helpful to be able to have those conversations."
Bruins coach Claude Julien has become a close friend of Neely's, but the bench boss also realizes who's the boss.
"He's been around the game long enough, and he understands how players feel because he was one of those guys," Julien said. "He's been hanging around us and getting a feel for how we see things. It's been good.
"You want to be surrounded by people who care and people who really want to win, and win at all costs. I know he's looking forward to seeing this Bruins team win a Cup very soon, and he's as anxious as any other fan out there."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. You can follow him on Twitter.