When the Hall of Famer and fan favorite took over the VP post prior to the 2007-08 season, the Bruins were coming off two straight seasons in which they missed the playoffs, and Neely promised to do his best to restore the tradition and identity of the Bruins. Both Neely and general manager Peter Chiarelli hoped to turn the Bruins into "a team that is tough to play against."
"It's a great franchise," Neely said at the time. "Tons of tradition, and a lot of great players have come through here. Players took pride in putting on that jersey and it showed in the way they played."
For the majority of the last three seasons, the Bruins have done that. They have played a brand of hockey that resembled that of the teams that Neely played for in the old Boston Garden. Neely, of course, was the prototypical power forward of his generation, capable of scoring 50 goals in a season (a feat he accomplished three times) while still being very capable of driving the opponent through the boards and creating utter fear in their minds every time he stepped on the ice.
The Bruins of the last three seasons haven't exactly been that extreme in terms of shear toughness, but they have become a very difficult team to play against thanks to their physical and hard-working style. For that, Neely deserves a fair share of the credit. He was able to find a balance where he was able to influence the identity of the team yet at the same time pull back and let the players be themselves and find their own team identity.
Of course, the players were the ones to play this brand of hockey on the ice, but having a former player like Neely around, a man whose presence simply commands respect and inspires greatness through hard-nosed hockey, definitely helps.
"It's amazing to have a guy like him to bounce ideas off," said Milan Lucic earlier this season. "He is a Hall of Famer that knew what it takes to win and gave his all every shift. Just look at all the injuries he battled and still was able to produce at a high level. He's inspiring."
Because of Lucic's similar size and style, he is often compared to Neely by fans and media, but in a candid interview during the playoffs, Neely showed just how much he has learned as vice president — and most likely why he is being promoted to president.
"Milan is a great player, but he needs to be his own person and player," Neely said when asked about the comparisons with him and Lucic. "It's not fair to try and expect him to play like anyone else. Milan is Milan."
That statement showed that while Neely expects Lucic and his teammates to give their all every shift as he did, he doesn't expect them to be the second coming of him, Ray Bourque, Terry O'Reilly, Bobby Orr or any other Bruins legend. He believes in his players and is there to help them, but he's not trying to transform them into something they're not.
While Neely has not been shy to show his enthusiasm for the game and the team, he has done a splendid job of distancing Neely the player and Neely the executive and adviser. He has shown a willingness to learn and absorb the tricks of the trade from Chiarelli and apply those lessons when needed. Now, as he ventures into a new role as president, he most likely will be more hands-on and active in personnel decisions. Yet, as he has proven, he will expect the players to be themselves and be the best they can be.