- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning were minutes away from Game 7 when I came across Cam Neely in the halo of TD Garden. He was nattily attired in a suit and tie, fitting the bill in his new role as president of the Bruins.
For those of us who chronicled his illustrious career as both a prolific goal-scorer and one of the most rugged and physical players ever to pull on that spoked B sweater, it was hard not to picture him as No. 8 in our program, the embodiment of a Bruin, legendary for his grit, his talent, his quick release and his willingness to drop the gloves.
The suit fits him just fine, but somehow the sweater suited him better.
"What's the hardest part about being up here and not down there?" I asked, pointing to the ice.
"Well, I guess," Neely answered, after pondering a moment, "you can't hit anybody from up here."
No, you can't, yet in one short season as the man with the final say in the Bruins' front office, Neely's imprint on the team has been as unmistakable as one of his bone-crushing hits in the corner. His players speak of him in revered, hushed tones, while his team's owner, Jeremy Jacobs, lauded Neely in a press conference Monday as "someone you look at and say, 'That's what a Bruin is.' Cam says that in volumes.''
Following an inexplicable collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers last spring, when the Bruins blew both a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 advantage in Game 7, a grim-faced Neely, who was then vice president of the team, strode out of the Garden with his teeth gritted and his tie loosened.
"Never again," he was overheard telling former teammate and fellow front office cohort Don Sweeney. "This can't ever happen again."
One year later, the Bruins will open up Wednesday night against the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals, the first Boston team to make that trip since Neely, Ray Bourque and their teammates played Edmonton in 1990.
These feel-good Bruins have erased the scars of one season ago when that epic collapse shook the very foundation of the entire franchise.
Neely said his club turned things around not by forgetting, but instead by remembering.
"Certain things happen throughout your professional career in sports that you wish didn't happen," Neely explained. "The way we finished last year was definitely one of them."
Neely understood injuries played a role in his team's demise, but also recognized certain physical -- and mental -- adjustments needed to be made.
"All teams look at that," Neely said, "but not many do it after the circumstances we had. It was important, I thought, to recognize we weren't going to try to ignore what happened.
"We needed to try to learn and grow from it. The easiest thing to do would have been to forget it, sweep it under the rug, try to move on.
"I didn't want us to harp on it, but I certainly wanted us to acknowledge it and understand what we could do differently."
General manager Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins did not stand pat with their personnel, dealing defenseman Dennis Wideman and draft picks for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell, then later acquiring Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Tomas Kaberle, who was expected to fill the role as a top blueliner who could move the puck.
Kaberle has been a disappointment, but Horton, in particular, has proved to be a catalyst and a scorer on the first line. He recently expressed his delight in receiving input from Neely, saying Neely's legendary combination of skill and strength is something he's long admired.
Those interactions, Neely revealed, are only intermittent.
"I kind of leave the locker room to Claude [Julien] and his coaching staff," Neely said, "but when we're on the road and we're traveling together, I have an opportunity to have conversations with the players.
"I don't want to get in their ear too much, but I do still look at things from a player's perspective."
Neely recalled his playing days in Boston when some of the veterans from the Stanley Cup-winning teams stopped in to offer some perspective.
"I always liked it when the alumni came through and shot the breeze," Neely said. "Johnny Bucyk was always around because he covered the games, and Derek Sanderson, when he was doing color, was around a bit, and Bobby [Orr] would be in and out periodically. Just to see those guys and to have a chance to talk to them, to have them plant a little something in your head, I always found that helpful."
Neely's consistent message throughout this emotional postseason has been to stick to basics and "to focus on the little things, not so much the big picture."
It has served Boston well through a draining seven-game series with the Montreal Canadiens, a redemption series against the Flyers, then another stressful matchup that went the distance with Tampa Bay.
The 1-0 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals was a prototype for the Bruins since no penalties were called and they were able to play 5-on-5 hockey, which is what this team was built for. If there is one major concern going forward, it remains a Boston power play that has been inept for most of the playoffs.
"It's been tough on everybody," Neely conceded. "The players, the coaches, the front office. We've had numerous conversations about it. The coaching staff has gone over it and over it again. I believe at some point something will change. It's not a lack of trying or a lack of trying to figure out what to do differently. The guys have been putting forth the effort, it's a matter of something just clicking so we can start producing."
Rookie Tyler Seguin, who was inactive for the first two playoff series, has proved to be an electric player, in spurts, once he finally garnered some ice time. Why not permanently insert the 19-year-old kid with the breathtaking speed onto the power play?
"He's got the skills to certainly help you produce," Neely said. "It's one of those things where you have to make sure you compete for loose pucks because there's a lot of loose pucks on the power play. He's shown that he wants to play more, and that's a good thing.
"I thought Tyler played fantastic in Game 7. He played hard, he was battling for those loose pucks. He has great skill and great speed, and he showed you both of those things. For him to have the opportunity to be with this team that has gone on this run, and to get him the experience of what it's like to play playoff hockey, and to learn from his teammates as well as learn from watching the opponent, it's all going to help him.
"From my perspective, Tyler has probably grown more in the playoffs in this short time than he did throughout the course of the regular season. The postseason has opened his eyes to what it takes to be an elite player. He has the elite skills, now it's a matter of putting it all together."
While the success of Boston's offense tends to be the barometer for most fans, Neely has been pleased with the depth of the defense, beginning always with the anchor, Zdeno Chara. Neely has appreciated the effort of a healthier Andrew Ference and singled out rookie Adam McQuaid as another player who has stepped up his game.
Boston goaltender Tim Thomas is lined up to win another Vezina Trophy, a testament to the persistence of the 37-year-old who many felt was in line to cede his job to the younger Tuukka Rask at the start of the season.
"First of all, I knew he wouldn't just 'give way' to Tuukka because I know how competitive Tim is," Neely said. "I've seen the guy get scored on in practice and you would think it had just happened in Game 7.
"He came in so determined this year. He was going to prove to everyone he wasn't ready to give up on being a No. 1 goaltender.
"The plan was to get them both some games and then that would dictate to Claude who should get the bulk of the work."
Neely knows what a streaky goaltender can do to your Stanley Cup chances. In the 1990 finals, his Bruins ran into a white-hot Billy Ranford, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy with a .912 postseason save percentage. Neely had scored 50 goals that season, and Edmonton's dynasty, especially with the departure of Wayne Gretzky, was thought to be in decline, yet Ranford changed the landscape.
Boston, which had been swept by Edmonton two years earlier in the finals, expected and believed 1990 would be a different story.
"In '88 we had come off an emotional playoff beating Montreal and for a lot of us it was the first time being in the finals and being enamored by that," Neely said. "It was like, 'Oh my God we made it here.' But in '90 our mindset was more, 'Hey, we're in this thing to win it.'"
Boston battled Edmonton to three overtimes in Game 1 before Petr Klima struck for the winner. Neely conceded his team never quite recovered from that devastating loss. The Bruins fell to Edmonton in five games.
Neely potted 51 goals the following season, but a questionable hit by Ulf Samuelsson in the conference finals that May resulted in a thigh injury that would ultimately cause a premature and abrupt end to Neely's decorated career.
"When I look back [at 1990], I understand how important it was to embrace that opportunity," Neely said. "We've had some pretty good players come through Boston since then and they haven't gotten back, so it's important to recognize how hard it is to get there. We have everything from rookies to guys who have been in the league 10, 12 years who haven't seen the finals yet, so let's leave it all out there and see where we end up."
Neely ventures to Vancouver with great anticipation. He grew up in the area, the Canucks were the franchise that drafted him, and his two sisters, aunt and cousin still reside in the city.
He will watch his team battle from above, wearing a different suit and another tie, an exercise that is more mentally taxing than when he was on the ice with a direct opportunity to control his team's destiny.
"It's a long day waiting for the puck to drop," admitted the president of the Boston Bruins.
Cam Neely likes his team's chances. He will never forgot where the Bruins were one year ago -- or how very far they've come since then.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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