KEVIN PAUL DUPONT
Jared Wickerham for The Boston Globe
BUFFALO — Jeremy Jacobs bought the Bruins 42 years ago, proudly noting during an interview in his downtown office at the time that he was a concessions guy.
“A hot dog salesman, first, second, and third,” the 35-year-old new owner told Globe hockey writer Fran Rosa in November 1975, days after purchasing the team and its rickety home on Causeway Street for a reported sum of $10 million.”
Four-plus decades and a couple of billion red hots and craft beers later, Jacobs, 77, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday night in Toronto.
Chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors the last 10 years, Jacobs will be enshrined in the Builders category, befitting a man who, beyond his longevity as Bruins owner, will be remembered most — both good and bad — for his iron hand in collective bargaining talks through the years with NHL players.
Along with league commissioner Gary Bettman and a hard-line group of fellow senior owners, Jacobs applied his businessman’s acumen and unwavering devotion to the bottom line in the oft-contentious negotiations, which led to the design and implementation of a salary cap in the wake of the lost lockout season of 2004-05.
It was that lockout, and a briefer one in 2012-13, that finally provided the owners with the labor-cost certainty that is widely credited for much of the game’s growth and stability in recent years.
“I wanted to see a long-term relationship — a sport that could live,” said Jacobs. “We were going through owners because there was a [financial] loss that existed. I thought taking the long-term view instead of the short-term view was going to be best for everybody — players and the game itself.
“There’s a lot of balance now. Who ever would have thought that Nashville would be in the finals? These are things that are going on now that I don’t think we ever anticipated.”
Jacobs, whose Delaware North conglomerate generates some $3 billion in annual revenues, sat here recently in his shiny new downtown office, and was reminded of his “hot dog” pedigree of decades earlier.
“That was then,” said Jacobs, his 12th-floor office offering expansive views of Lake Erie. “I am 42 years older and my experience is quite different. I learned to love the game and really get involved with it. I still am in the concession business, and still in the building business, but we are different people.”
Jacobs, and not Delaware North, remains owner of the Bruins and NESN (in a continuing partnership with the Red Sox). The TD Garden, which opened as the FleetCenter in 1995, is a Delaware North property, along with the sundry other buildings that continue to shoot up around the Garden.
In 1975, Jacobs bought a tiny, and some believed worthless, Boston Garden parcel in what remained of the old and dingy West End, the neighborhood suffocated under the expanse of the hulking Central Artery and a screeching elevated Green Line trolley track. One Big Dig era gone by, the area in recent years has transformed into a vibrant growth hub, with the combined Jacobs and Delaware North interests easily valued at more than $2 billion.
“None of it has been negative,” Jacobs said. “The best part, personally to me, is the Bruins, because I enjoy it so much. But the real estate has worked out.”
It has been all the more satisfying, noted Jacobs, because the parties representing Storer Broadcasting, which sold him the Bruins and the Garden, emphatically told him prior to the sale that the land could not be developed. It took decades, but he ultimately built the new arena for $160 million, and then gained more ability and space to build as the multibillion-dollar Big Dig unfolded.
“We were fortunate to make the right moves,” he said. “But the city has grown so much around us. The Big Dig put [customers] at the doorstep in a different way. It became a confluence of assets that 40 years ago you never could have anticipated.
First, second, and third, the self-professed hot dog salesman viewed the NHL game as a business, and it is hard to argue with the results. The league during Jacobs’s tenure has grown from 18 to 31 teams, including its late-’70s merger with the rival World Hockey Association, and this fall it became the first major sports league to start doing business in the Las Vegas desert.
To join the club, the Vegas Golden Knights ponied up a league-record $500 million expansion fee, 50 times what Jacobs doled out for the Bruins and the Garden, and 10 times what NHL expansion clubs were charged in the early ’90s.
For decades a nonentity in terms of national television, the NHL is now in the thick of a long-term contact with both NBC and NBCSN. The league’s showcase New Year’s Day event, the Winter Classic, has become the anchor in an annual series of popular and lucrative outdoor games, two of which have been played here — the first at Fenway Park, and one more recently at Gillette Stadium.
Here in the Hub of Hockey, the Jacobs name remains, shall we say, a trigger point among fans. They witnessed Jacobs inherit a team that had won a pair of Stanley Cups over the five years leading to his purchase, and ultimately take 36 years to get back to the winner’s circle during his reign. A run of 29 straight years in the playoffs, dating back to the spring of ’68, offered little sustenance for their Cup starvation.
For a quarter-century or more, Jacobs was rarely seen or heard in Boston. He remained in Buffalo, living on a sprawling estate/horse farm in suburban East Aurora, continuing to build a concessions and gaming business that was driving some $200 million in revenue at the time, about 7 percent of today’s figure.
“I was 30-some-odd years old. I had a lot of business, and work to do,” said Jacobs, who inherited the concessions-based business at age 28, when his father, Louis M. Jacobs, died at work at age 68.
“My focus was, I didn’t want to get into . . . how do I say this? . . . but there is lot of devotion of time and interest and depiction that you have to be there. And I had someone who was doing that. I really didn’t want to interfere with that. I was happy with that.”
That “someone” was Harry Sinden, Jacobs’s trusted and ever-quotable general manager, who had coached the club to Cup glory in 1970. Sinden did all the talking, and was the object of much of the fan criticism.
The fan ire developed a narrative that Sinden was cheap and that Jacobs was an absent, aloof penny-pincher, a Buffalo billionaire who cared more about cups of beer than Cups of glory.
“Did I like it? Probably not,” said Jacobs. “Was I willing to sacrifice the direction we were going in for it? No. He was a darn good leader. And he taught me a lot about the game.”
Jacobs played football in Buffalo at Canisius High, also wrestled, and put the shot on the school’s track and field team. He eloped at age 18, before he entered SUNY Buffalo, and he and wife Peg were well on to having six children when he took over the family business in 1968.
His company was not entirely new to hockey upon his taking over the Bruins. In 1940, the year he was born, his father bought the American Hockey League team in Syracuse and moved it to Buffalo as the Bisons. Legendary Bruins defenseman Eddie Shore coached the Bisons to the AHL title for Lou Jacobs in 1943 and ’44.
Prior to buying the Bruins, Jacobs said, he also worked closely with the Knox family when it brought the expansion NHL Sabres to Buffalo for the start of the 1970-71 season.
Witnessing firsthand what the Knoxes encountered with their startup, said Jacobs, convinced him all the more that the Bruins were a good deal. The team had history, a vested fan base, and a building, albeit a tired one.
Also, Boston was a city on the rise, with locals abuzz about the revived Faneuil Hall market coaxing suburbanites to take a second look at a city many bolted after World War II.
“It was a heck of a good buy for me,” said Jacobs. “We had the building, the team, the concessions, and also the TV rights. The whole deal was put together so well.
“I’d watched them try to construct it here in Buffalo after they had bought an expansion franchise, and I was deeply involved with [the Knoxes] at the time. I understood what they were going through and where they were trying to go. It was just a good transaction at the time for us.”
Jacobs stepped down as CEO of Delaware North just less than two years ago and named two of his sons, Jeremy Jr. and Louis, the company’s co-CEOs. His third and youngest son, Charlie, was named CEO and principal of all the company’s interests in Boston, save for the team itself and NESN.
The senior Jacobs retains the title of chairman of Delaware North, and intends for his six children, including three daughters not active in the business, to share in the succession plan for the team and his portion of NESN.
On Monday, Jacobs will join five other builders who made their way to the Hall of Fame via Boston, a group that includes Charles Adams, Weston Adams Sr., Walter Brown, Pat Burns, and Sinden.
“A total surprise, I have to say,” said Jacobs, asked how he felt about the honor. “It’s humbling in the fact that it’s a peer thing.
“Peers are bestowing an honor on you that you didn’t expect, and it is terribly meaningful to me because I have spent the past 42 years now involved in this sport and it went from arm’s length to something that is very near and dear to me.”
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