LOS ANGELES — Outside the visitors’ locker room, Cam Neely was pumping his fist, letting out an excited grunt, grinning, and chatting with a couple of LA friends. The Bruins had done it again.
The team keeps winning while twisting less-cohesive opponents into knots. At midseason, they are the unquestioned Stanley Cup favorites and are embracing that fact. Only one team in NHL history had more wins through 38 games than these Bruins (30-4-4), and it was the 1929-30 Bruins, who played in an era when the Titanic was a recent memory, not a feature film.
Neely is steering the ship now as club president, and if the thing didn’t sideswipe an iceberg in early November, it sure felt that way to him.
“It was tough on all of us,” Neely said Wednesday as he stood on the concourse of the Kings’ practice rink in El Segundo, watching the Bruins tune up at the start of a week in California. After beating the Kings, 5-2, on Thursday, they visit the Sharks Saturday and Ducks Sunday.
Bruins management has taken its lumps the last two months, following the indefensible signing of prospect Mitchell Miller Nov. 5 and Neely’s contrite press conference two days later. For the wrong reasons, the Bruins became a news story across North America. They were slapped around by the hockey world and their own fans. Player leadership spoke out.
If that didn’t make it clear that adding skill in spite of character is beneath their standard, an outside investigation reinforced the idea. Miller, who remains under contract, is likely to be bought out after the season. The club has promised that its potential draftees and signees would be more strictly vetted.
“We always talk about getting better on the ice, and we can get better off the ice,” Neely said. “We’re going to learn from it. It was disappointing for me, especially how it affected people close to us. We completely read it wrong. Shame on us.”
L’Affaire Miller hasn’t affected the Bruins’ standing as one of the league’s marquee brands. Far from it. The Winter Classic set merchandise sales records for an NHL outdoor game, according to a league spokesperson. Some 2.1 million people watched the Bruins’ third-period comeback on TNT. There’s a buzz near the rink of every city they visit.
The Bruins will be in line for more big-time events. Before the pandemic intervened, they were scheduled to open the 2020-21 season in Czechia. Neely has informed the league that the Bruins would return to Europe, or anywhere, if the timing is right.
“It’s such a great bonding experience for the team, getting away,” he said. “When I played, in early October the circus would come to town for a few weeks, and our circus would go on the road.”
Meanwhile, Neely didn’t have much to say on David Pastrnak’s future (he is in the last year of his contract), but that didn’t seem to be weighing on him.
Between us, reader: As a sportswriter, you quickly learn to avoid saying “never” when athletes are making life-changing financial decisions. But I’ve yet to speak with anyone inside or outside the Bruins organization who believes Pastrnak wants out.
“It’s been ongoing discussions,” Neely said. “David also wanted to have an offseason that he hadn’t had in a couple years, so we respected that.
“I don’t feel any pressure. I don’t think their side feels any pressure, at least based on any conversations I’ve had with Don [Sweeney], or his conversations with David’s representatives. Obviously, it’s a topic on the top of everybody’s mind and rightfully so.”
As the Bruins flew to San Jose late Thursday, Pastrnak was second in the NHL in goals among wingers (27) and third in points (52). Given Pastrnak’s age (27 in May), production (242 goals in the last six seasons, fifth among all NHLers), and an anticipated rise in the salary cap, it’s easy to see his next AAV challenging Artemi Panarin ($11.64 million) for richest among wingers.
Asked if the Bruins are prepared to make Pastrnak the highest-paid winger in the game, Neely wasn’t going there.
“I’m not going to get into that,” he said.
Neely, noticeably trimmer these days, is also avoiding the buffet table. Around the time he had his shoulder replaced seven months ago, the Hall of Famer realized his weight was going in the wrong direction. He has upped his time spent walking and swimming and lowered his intake.
“I learned that I was a stress eater,” said Neely, 57. “When I travel with the team, there’s so much food around. There’s food every time you turn around. I’m not burning it like I used to. I don’t really weigh myself that often, but I know I’ve got to get my suits altered.
“There’s no secret. Calories in, calories out.”
These last few months have been a gut-check.