In a city with Boston's sports traditions, breaking even just isn't good enough. Consequently, after the Bruins staggered to a .500 National Hockey League record last season and bowed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in four quick games, change was clearly in the air. Things didn't get any better this fall, either. Trade rumors and the limited use of several popular veterans led to an unsettled atmosphere as the team got off to its worst start in nearly 20 years.
In early November, general manager Harry Sinden abruptly quelled the trade talk, coming up with a simple solution to the club's sinking morale. Sinden dismissed coach Butch Goring, citing ``inability to motivate'' as the principal problem.
Enter Terry O'Reilly, who logged nearly 1,000 games when he wore the Bruins' black and gold until his retirement two seasons ago. As a player, O'Reilly had been a big fan favorite - a feisty, rugged battler who personified the Bruins' spirit throughout his hard-nosed career. And what Terry ``lacked in coaching experience,'' Sinden hypothesized, ``would be compensated for by the qualities he embodied as a player - determination, the refusal to quit when down or ahead...,'' and other Horatio Alger characteristics.
Yet, in light of the problems some other ex-players have experienced when moving behind the bench, the appointment didn't come with any guarantees.
Goring, as a case in point, was brought in amid much fanfare two months after playing his last game for the club.
Buffalo has made two similar moves recently, last season with Jim Schoenfeld and now with Craig Ramsey, also without much success to date.
What makes O'Reilly different? Just look at the record.
When Terry took over, Boston had nearly lost sight of runaway Adams Division leaders Montreal and Quebec. Now a month later, the team is in the thick of the race - and even beginning to look like a viable contender for the Stanley Cup itself.
A recent seven-game winning streak carried the Bruins to the top of the standings, and although the string was broken by Hartford last week, they are still in the battle for first place.
They've been beating the top teams, too. They humbled Philadelphia, possessor of the best record in the NHL, 5-0, then defeated the New York Islanders the next night. Another time they scored back-to-back victories over division rivals Montreal and Quebec, both on the road.
The Bruins also seem to have come up with a formula for 11th-hour heroics. Against the Stanley Cup champion Canadiens they scrambled back from a two-goal deficit to record a 4-2 decision. The next night at Quebec they scored two goals in the last 18 seconds, including one at the siren.
Despite the navy blue blazer and a more soft-spoken demeanor, O'Reilly still brings to mind the tenacious winger who always gave it his best shot throughout a 13-year career. And already his team reflects Terry's penchant for sound fundamental hockey, emphasizing forechecking, body contact, and old-fashioned position play.
Terry also believes in trying to achieve as much balance with his lines as possible. Furthermore, he is aware of the criticism sometimes heard during the Goring era that the defensemen played too conservatively.
``Unlike recent years, the Bruins are not relying on one line to carry the team,'' the new coach says. ``We are getting production from all three lines, as well as from several defensemen [Ray Bourque and Reed Larson], who can carry the puck and produce offensive threats.''
One of O'Reilly's first orders of business was to reunite the line of Ken Linseman, Keith Crowder, and Charlie Simmer, which had enjoyed considerable success a year ago. Earlier this fall, Goring had experimented with Linseman and Rick Middleton at different positions, only to see both veterans start slowly.
Now Linseman has gone on a scoring spree (7 goals in 11 games in one stretch, including an overtime winner against Edmonton); his linemates have also been scoring more; and Middleton, too, has returned to form, as he showed by netting two goals in the victory over Montreal.
Steve Kasper, who had requested a trade during the Goring reign, is back at his old stand shadowing top-scoring opponents. Having played on a line with O'Reilly, Kasper notes, ``It is impossible not to play hard for Terry. He redefined the meaning of the word work during his years on the ice.''
Kasper has taken the O'Reilly forechecking precepts to heart. Late in the recent win over the Islanders, Steve scored a textbook goal, following the forechecking winger, Nevin Markwart, into the Islander zone, taking a pass in the slot, and scoring from 35 feet out. In the postgame interview O'Reilly noted, ``That is the kind of offense we need to win hockey games. In the final analysis it comes down to who is hungrier. Do we want the puck and the game more than the other guy does?''
So far, O'Reilly's charges have been giving him the answer he wants. And as a result, the tough guy who resolutely defied discomfort, fatigue, and the opposition during his days as a player is making a successful entree at hockey's executive level.