Jeremy Jacobs respectfully declined an interview this week because he was uncomfortable speaking about the Bruins’ success. He was in an awkward position given his place in the Buffalo business community and his allegiance to his own team. He didn’t want to say anything remotely offensive to the Sabres.
His response, or lack thereof, was understandable. The Delaware North chairman and Bruins owner is quiet by nature. He’s not one to schmooze with the media or draw attention to himself. He’s never been accused of being a braggart. Instead, he would rather allow results to speak for him.
It’s easy to forget now, but for years Jacobs was viewed as a villain in Boston. Fans who called him a tightwad thought he was the primary obstacle between the Bruins and the Stanley Cup. They complained about him living in Buffalo, claiming he didn’t care about Boston and wasn’t committed to winning.
Once they grew tired of crying, they stopped buying.
Boston fans sent their own message during a dark, dreary period after the 2004-05 NHL lockout. The Red Sox and Patriots were winning championships. The Celtics were building toward another. The Bruins had essentially disappeared from the radar in one of the nation’s most passionate sports towns.
The Bruins never released actual figures, but estimates had their season-ticket base dipping to 5,000 or less. For the first time since Jacobs purchased the team in 1975, there was talk of them giving tickets away. It’s sad to think a Boston-based franchise sank so low that it needed to paper the building, but that’s what happened.
In retrospect, it was a blessing.
Not until an unhealthy blend of disdain and indifference showed up in gate receipts did Jacobs understand the depth of the fans’ disgust. It forced major changes, starting with the front office. Longtime executive Harry Sinden was reassigned. General Manager Mike O’Connell was fired. Jacobs’ son, Charlie, moved to Boston to mind the store.
Jacobs replaced his top hockey men with Peter Chiarelli, a brainy Harvard grad with a great hockey mind, and Cam Neely, a brawny ex-star with a great eye for gamers. Chiarelli took over personnel. Neely became the face of the franchise. Together, they rebuilt the Bruins and changed their culture.
Looking for a team that did it right?
Check the Bruins, who beat the Sabres, 5-2, on Wednesday night with a backup goaltender playing his 11th NHL game. Milan Lucic and Torey Krug scored twice, and Brad Marchand set up Dougie Hamilton for the Bruins. Rookie Nikita Zadorov scored his first NHL on a backhander for the Sabres, who continued their journey to nowhere. John Scott is an embarrassment to hockey, let alone the Sabres. He’s among several players in Buffalo, along with their coach, who have no business being in the NHL.
Boston, on the other hand, is a perennial contender. In 2011, five years after hitting a low point, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. They fell to the Blackhawks in the finals last season. They effectively changed expectations, raised standards and restored confidence. They’ve sold out every game for three-plus years.
Chiarelli and Neely have been masterful in acquiring the right personnel and making bold moves when needed. Zdeno Chara was the first to climb aboard. They had the spine and vision to send No. 1 pick Phil Kessel to Toronto in a package for a first-round pick that ended up being Tyler Seguin. They traded Seguin last summer to Dallas. Neely’s mission, as he likes to say, is finding dogs that can hunt. Lucic, a poor skater but fearless around the net, is a bloodhound. Marchand is 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, but he’s a giant in terms of spunk.
They’re two examples on a roster loaded with players Buffalo loves to hate but wished it had.
The Bruins also hired a good, experienced coach in Claude Julien, who applied what he learned in Montreal and New Jersey when he arrived in Boston in 2007. Every move they make these days is with the Cup in mind.
See where this is going?
The Sabres could build the same success if a similar message was received at the top. Fans can continue whining about Darcy Regier, suffering, a lack of entertainment, a lack of leadership. It starts in Buffalo where it started in Boston, with the owner. He’s the one man who can make changes in a snap of his fingers.
Terry Pegula can run the Sabres how he chooses, but fans can spend their money how they choose, too. It’s not as if Pegula is shaking down unsuspecting victims on a street corner and demanding their money. They’re willfully donating a couple hundred bucks when the tickets, parking and beer are added up.
It’s not my place to tell people how to spend their money, but to me it seems ludicrous when some shell out more on season tickets than property taxes. They’re enabling the very problems they’re whining about. They may be showing up and chanting “Fi-re Dar-cy,” but they’re still showing up.
Consumers wouldn’t continue buying rotten vegetables from the same market, so why do Sabres fans continue coming back no matter how nauseating the product?
Pegula can say whatever he pleases, but he’s like many NHL owners. NHL owners are businessmen. They equate success to attendance. They equate attendance to acceptance. Sabres fans have come to accept failure. For now, Pegula has no pressure to listen to a fan base desperate for change.
Enough fans have told that they feel they have no voice. In fact, they always have a voice. Nothing screams louder than a quiet crowd in a half-empty building, which was all that remained for much of the third period against Boston.
Jacobs long ago learned that lesson the hard way, a truth he left unspoken Wednesday. His actions over the years said plenty. The same is true about Pegula.