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ON HOCKEY

In this front office, success has not been the bottom line

Mike O'Connell got the gate yesterday, nearly a dozen years after moving into the Bruins' front office, first as assistant general manager and then as GM. Based on how the last decade-plus played out, the end could have come years ago, because franchise success was hardly the hallmark of the former defenseman's stay on Causeway Street.

So, why yesterday, at 6 p.m., with another season already burned to the ground, and a roster stocked all too deep with American Hockey Leaguers?

According to Harry Sinden, whose own stay in the front office could end sooner than some would expect, it was because of an increasingly awkward situation that still had O'Connell making GM decisions, including three key signings (Tim Thomas, P.J. Axelsson and Matt Lashoff) within a week. No surprise there, of course, because O'Connell until yesterday was still the GM. But O'Connell's bosses, including Sinden and owner Jeremy Jacobs, already had decided it was time for O'Connell to be removed from office, and it made no sense for a lame duck to keep making decisions over a very lame product.

One irony, sad or otherwise, is that the Thomas-Axelsson-Lashoff signings rank as some of O'Connell's better moves. He was often guilty of passivity -- not getting players signed, being too patient with ineffective coaching -- and in the last week or so he was, finally, proactive. Just as he got it going, they got him gone.

Tuesday night, in an interview with the Globe, Jacobs was adamant about the need for change, but added he would not do anything as a kneejerk reaction. He also said he wouldn't disclose those decisions in the media and, no matter what, no decisions would be made prior to the end of the season. Last night, reached by telephone during the Bruins-Sabres game, Jacobs made it clear he pushed aggressively, and was the lead voice, to dismiss O'Connell.

A source familiar with other meetings Jacobs had in the Garden on Tuesday said the owner met with a number of building and team officials the same day, attempting to prop up sagging spirits and convey the sense of a steady hand overseeing the product.

Four days after saying nothing would happen until mid-April, O'Connell was turfed, replaced on an interim basis by assistant GM Jeff Gorton, with Sinden left saying that Gorton will be among a number of candidates considered for the permanent position.

So, what happened? In part, two more dreadful games happened, including a shootout loss to the Thrashers on Tuesday, with Jacobs in his Garden luxury box, no doubt wincing, for most of it. The mood in the building all night was almost funereal. No pulse. Not the least bit of anticipation or excitement. The Bruins had a two-goal lead in the third period and left with another defeat, death by shootout.

Jacobs, when asked last night what finally triggered the decision, said, ''An abundance of dissatisfaction -- with the team and the organization. It became a foregone conclusion, sooner or later we were going to do it. Sooner seemed to be now."

Jacobs also praised O'Connell as ''a wonderful human being" and said he was saddened to have to remove someone who served the club so long, first as a player and later in management.

Friday night, the Bruins suffered a humiliating, 4-2 loss in New Jersey, with both goalies, Andrew Raycroft and Thomas, at times looking like stumblebums. Tough spot, East Rutherford. The Bruins lost there in November and dealt Joe Thornton the next day. This time, O'Connell got 16-W'd.

O'Connell, who had his moments (the best: the spring '04 acquisitions of Michael Nylander and Sergei Gonchar), represents the first move of what likely will be, and should be, a clean sweep on Causeway Street. Sinden made the formal announcement yesterday, and he will have some say in the decision of whether to keep Gorton on the job or look to someone else.

But based on Jacobs's demeanor and words Tuesday night, he has begun to distance himself from Sinden, after more than 30 years of a relationship that has bordered on virtual partnership.

On Tuesday night, in anticipation of changes in the front office, the Globe asked Jacobs if he would make his decision with or without Sinden.

''Both," said Jacobs.

Asked to clarify the contradiction, Jacobs added, ''Look, it's either with him, or around him, but I've got to get it done. And he understands. He has a view. But it's not the only view."

Stinging words. As he often does, Jacobs quickly softened the approach by noting Sinden's age. He will turn 74 prior to the start of next season. Jacobs didn't go as far to say it was time for Sinden to pack up, but he made it clear the steamer trunks were within reach.

Last night, Jacobs said he wasn't ''looking for him to go anywhere." At least not at the moment.

''Statistics tell me that men over 70 don't live as long as men over 40," said a matter-of-fact Jacobs. ''I'm not looking for him to go anywhere, but he's looking at the clock -- same as everyone. He can tell time, like everyone."

For some three years, Jacobs has been saying change, inevitable in every front office of every sport, would come to Causeway Street as part of an ''evolution and not revolution." Yesterday, with only three weeks remaining in the 2005-06 season, the 'r' was placed at the front end of the evolution, and it began with running O'Connell out the palace doors.

Sinden's voice, one in the process, will be considered in the hiring of the next GM. Based on how Jacobs is talking, it could be that Sinden has his say, the hire is made (with or without Sinden's recommendation) and Sinden's management days are officially terminated. Perhaps as part of dressing up a golden parachute, he could be assigned a Red Auerbach role, rolled out for a few team functions when appropriate. But that's tricky, because Sinden, whose management days have not delivered a Cup, is not nearly as beloved in the Hub as Auerbach.

One possible scenario to keep in mind: Charlie Jacobs, the owner's son, could take on some of O'Connell's responsibilities and essentially share the position with Gorton, whose strengths rest in scouting and preparing for the amateur draft.

For whomever takes over as GM, be it Gorton or otherwise, there is a dire need to be a more public, engaging presence than O'Connell and Sinden. That's far from the first need, but it is important, especially with a club that has all but been rendered an expansion franchise.

The most important job for any GM is to know who can play, to have that innate sense of being able to look at a player and know -- not think, not believe, but know -- that he can contribute on the NHL level. Based on the lineup coach Mike Sullivan must employ on a nightly basis, the Sinden-O'Connell regime lacked that knack. There are too many wannabes, will-never-bes and has-beens wearing those Black and Gold uniforms at the moment.

The new guy should be able and willing to talk the game, sell it to the media and the public, re-ignite a passion that once drove this city to near delirium in the days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. To see it now, dead on double-runners, is painful and insulting for those old enough to remember those years of glory. The product is tired and beaten. But still, decent crowds come to the building, even if some must wonder if they should sign a memory book and look for the line to the coffin.

A very good person, O'Connell, but slow to react on issues that needed action (note: the Andrew Raycroft/Nick Boynton holdouts in September) and not effective at choosing the groceries. He didn't make those personnel selections by himself -- which doesn't help Gorton's standing -- but ultimately he must be judged by his signings, his trades, and most of all, the standings.

The new GM will inherit a team that can only improve. In that sense, and only that sense, O'Connell has left a winning formula in place.

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