This season marks the 50th anniversary of Bobby Orr’s Bruins debut, but it’s also the 30th anniversary of the first time Cam Neely pulled a Spoked-B sweater over his head.
A beloved Bruin and the goal-popping, face-pounding embodiment of the franchise’s ethos, Neely was traded to the Bruins on his 21st birthday — June 6, 1986.
He scored his first goal as a Bruin on Oct. 12, 1986, in a building that no longer exists (the Boston Garden) against a team that no longer exists (the Hartford Whalers). “Never would I have thought I would be doing what I’m doing 30 years later,” said the Bruins president.
Neely has been in town long enough to know what the pucks partisans here expect. They demand a hard-charging, hard-working, high-IQ hockey club that keeps the lights on and the Zamboni revving at TD Garden during the NHL playoffs. The Spoked Believers got their first in-person opportunity to see if Neely’s 2016-17 Bruins fit the bill on Thursday in the home opener against the New Jersey Devils. The Bruins delivered a resilient 2-1 win.
After two straight playoff-less seasons and brutal late-season collapses, the pressure is on Neely and his former teammate and hand-picked general manager Don Sweeney to provide a playoff product, while at the same time replenishing the Black and Gold prospect cupboard Costco-style with Brandon Carlos and Danton Heinens. It’s a balancing act worthy of Philippe Petit. Neely could take the fall if the difficult high-wire act of simultaneous playoff contention and player development fails.
Team owner Jeremy Jacobs and son Charlie, team CEO, have made it clear that the puck stops with Neely.
“I don’t have a problem with that. I really don’t. Things don’t go well, people have to find someone to be upset with. If it’s me, it’s me,” said Neely. “I can only control what I can control. My hopes are that our fan base and the people that matter see what we’re trying to accomplish here, and hopefully the results will show up on the ice and in the standings.
“You want it to be quicker than maybe sometimes it happens, but we still have to continue down the path we started to get back to where we want to be, and that’s ultimately to compete for Stanley Cups. You get a little flavor of what’s coming. Hopefully, these young players develop for us, and hopefully we can continue to improve as a club.”
Neely dismissed the popular notion that occasionally cranky coach Claude Julien is ill-suited to hold the hands of the kids.
“Claude isn’t going to look at the age of those players if they’re responsible,” said Neely. “He’ll put a bunch of 18-year-olds out there if it gives him the best chance of winning. He’ll put 20 18-year-olds out there. . . . If the players are responsible and doing their jobs, they’ll play. Everyone is going to make mistakes, I don’t care what age you are or experience you have. If you can’t correct those mistakes and not make them as frequently you’re not going to play. There is no gray area with Claude. It’s all black and white.”
As a Hall of Fame player, Neely could change games in an instant with his goal-scoring punch or actual punches. But as an executive, he has learned the value of patience.
The plan is for the Bruins’ current core of players in their prime — such as Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Tuukka Rask — to intersect with the rise of the next generation of Bruins.
“I don’t think there is a quick fix to put yourself in a position to compete,” said Neely. “Maybe, there was years ago, but now with the amount of teams and the parity and the salary cap there is a lot more put into the drafting and developing of players than there used to be.
“You don’t see a lot of transactions like you used to because there are so many factors, whether it’s cap-related, no-move or no-trade clauses, all of those things make it a little bit more challenging. That’s why there’s so much importance on doing a good job drafting and developing players.
“You are going to have to be patient. You are going to see some young mistakes. Hopefully, they’re the types of players that can grow from those mistakes and learn from them and correct them.”
Since this is the season of fact-checking, one could point out the Bruins aren’t in their current state of direction-straddling solely because of kicking the salary cap can down the road to chase the Cup.
They wouldn’t have to be relying on an influx of callow NHLers and waiting on their prospect pipeline to flow if they had done a better job nurturing and managing youthful NHL talents such as Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
The Seguin trade, made by former GM Peter Chiarelli, was an abject disaster. The return on the Hamilton trade is TBD; the Bruins used the three 2015 draft picks they acquired from Calgary on Maybe B’s Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jeremy Lauzon.
Once again it feels like the Bruins are a split-personality team.
One minute they fancy themselves Eastern Conference contenders with the owner talking about the team going deep into the playoffs and being a serious Cup contender. The next they’re preaching patience for a long-term plan.
You wonder if there is the public face of expectations for the Bruins and the private face. It feels like Jeremy Jacobs issues mandates in front of iPhones and microphones to satiate a passionate fan base and keep the stands at TD Garden full.
He must realize that pounding a proverbial skate on the table isn’t going to expedite the process.
Neely said his boss has the right to feel how he feels, but ownership has been apprised of the realities of plugging in young players.
“It wasn’t, ‘Ok, Don is coming in, and we’re going to turn this thing around in two offseasons,’ ’’ said Neely. “That’s just not possible.”
It has been a long time since Neely had to prove to anyone he belonged on Causeway Street, 30 years.
But he finds himself in that spot again.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.