On Pro Hockey
BOSTON — Mike O'Connell was standing, inconspicuously, on the right side of the crowded commercial elevator on the ninth floor of TD Banknorth Garden after another Boston Bruins win last night.
Four Bruins executives, including general manager Peter Chiarelli and vice president Cam Neely, just got in before the doors closed.
It was hard to tell if any of the Bruins' brass, beaming after an exciting 3-2 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals, noticed O'Connell, who stood silently.
About 20 minutes earlier, before overtime, O'Connell, who was there as a scout for the Los Angeles Kings — he is listed as the Kings' director of pro development — came clean.
O'Connell admitted he is a Bruins fan. Again.
Time has healed some of the wounds from March 25, 2006, the day then Bruins president Harry Sinden announced the firing of O'Connell, then Boston's general manager.
"Right off the bat, after I was fired, it stung a little bit," said O'Connell. "But I've always been a Bruins fan. I always will."
That's a pretty big statement from the guy universally blamed for a lot of mess that permeated this franchise just a few seasons ago.
O'Connell, who was officially the general manager since 2000, caught the most of the blame after the team returned from the lockout, which culminated with the Joe Thornton trade to the San Jose Sharks (the Bruins got Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart).
Thornton went on to become an even bigger star with the Sharks, winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP his first year there, while only Sturm remains with the Bruins.
"It comes with the territory," said O'Connell.
Unlike the new regime in the Bruins management office, O'Connell is from around here. He grew up in Cohasset and played parts of 13 seasons in the NHL, six (1980-81 to 1985-86) on Causeway Street with the Bruins.
He came back in 1992 as coach of the Providence Bruins and was around for 14 more seasons.
"Everywhere you go, the coffee shop ... people have something to say about the Bruins," said O'Connell. "When you are from here you hear it a lot more."
The problem, beyond "The Trade", was the playoff disappointments. The Bruins won two division titles, both 100-point seasons, under O'Connell's tenure as GM. But both of those seasons ended with first-round playoff knockouts.
The year after the lockout the Bruins were supposed to be ready for the new "salary cap era." But a 26-37-16 season, which wasn't good enough to make the playoffs, was the end for O'Connell.
After some time off, he joined the Los Angeles Kings organization. Three days a week, he drives 90 minutes from his home to Manchester, N.H., where he works with the Monarchs, L.A.'s American Hockey League affiliate.
"I'm on the ice, which is nice," said O'Connell. "I'm not as in tune with the day-to-day (running of a club) like I was with the Bruins, but I love it."
Last night he was at the Garden with a cohort from the Monarchs checking out the local team.
He likes what he sees with the "new" Bruins.
"I like this team a lot," said the 53-year-old O'Connell, who joined the Bruins front office as an assistant GM in 1994. "They've got a very good coach ... They've got good depth. Just look at the injuries they've had, a lot of key guys. But they're still winning."
O'Connell also had some nice words for the guy who eventually replaced him, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.
"Peter has added a nice blend of toughness," said O'Connell. "He's done a nice job. He really has."
O'Connell also likes what he sees with an acquisition he made, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.
"He was always very talented," said O'Connell. "He was playing great in Finland (before joining the Bruins). I always liked Timmy. I'm very happy for him."
O'Connell says he still talks to Sinden, who spoke to the Boston media at this weekend's AHL All-Star festivities in Worcester. Sinden basically warned everyone to wait before bestowing honors on anybody in January. Sinden said the Bruins need to carry it into April and May.
"Harry and I do talk," said O'Connell, inferring the hard feelings have somewhat dissipated.
"I'm happy," said O'Connell. "I have a great job. I'm still close to the game."
And he can't help but notice the Bruins are slowly creeping back to the mainstream, where they obviously have always belonged.
"The Bruins fans are great fans," said O'Connell. "I'm happy for them too."
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.