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ON HOCKEY

Jacobs doesn't buy O'Connell's excuse

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs believes the team's lack of success is the fault of management, not a flawed business plan.
Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs believes the team's lack of success is the fault of management, not a flawed business plan. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Bruins president Harry Sinden, supporting a theory espoused for months by Mike O'Connell, noted in Saturday night's news conference that O'Connell lost his job as the club's general manager, in part, because of the failed business plan the club designed in the years leading up to the 2004-05 lockout.

Sinden, in fact, spoke with some sympathy on the matter, saying that O'Connell had been ''dealt the nine of hearts," an unmanageable hand -- specifically in the form a new collective bargaining agreement that was nearly the polar opposite of the schematic anticipated by Messrs. Sinden and O'Connell.

Not even three hours after Sinden rolled out his former GM's plight, and lent his credence, support, and sympathy, owner Jeremy Jacobs labeled that reasoning for the club's failures as a ''load of [expletive]."

''That's what I think of that," added Jacobs, whose ire over his all-but-dysfunctional NHL product finally has come to a head in recent days and weeks. ''I really do."

Jacobs, while acknowledging he agreed with the pre-lockout business plan, one he said was structured by Sinden and O'Connell, made it clear he held the two accountable for not making the plan work.

''No one had a cleaner platter to build the team they wanted," said Jacobs, reached by telephone at his Florida home. ''A lot of the performances [of the players signed] fell far short of what was expected of them. So I don't share that belief. Who is [O'Connell] kidding?"

By Jacobs's eye, his management team should have been able to make far better use of the millions of dollars in cap room that it cleared out in anticipation of the new CBA being finalized last July. O'Connell used nearly $11 million of the $39 million cap to bring back free agents Joe Thornton and Glen Murray, and then failed to land Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano. The 'A' list of free agents quickly gone in a heated seller's market, O'Connell then signed the 'B'-list likes of forward Alexei Zhamnov ($12 million over three years), and defenseman Brian Leetch ($4 million for one year).

Not even two weeks into the season, it was evident it was going to be a long and challenging campaign, because of a lack of talent. By mid-November, O'Connell began to tear apart the roster, the biggest of the moves coming at the end of the month when he jettisoned Thornton, drafted in '97 as the franchise centerpiece, to San Jose. The trade led to a dramatic improvement, beginning in mid-January, but the run was short-lived, and by early last week Jacobs had made up his mind O'Connell would have to go.

''Harry likes to say that, too," said Jacobs, referring again to O'Connell's belief that the failed business plan turned the season upside down. ''But I don't believe it. [O'Connell] could have done what he wanted. They made their decisions . . . "

And the results were ugly. Jacobs's contention: better spending would have brought in better players and netted better results. The ''bad plan," in his mind, became a copout.

''I look at Buffalo right now, and they got rid of some of their stars, and I'd have to say they are the better for it," said Jacobs, who last saw his club play in Boston Tuesday. ''That business plan was constructed by [O'Connell and Sinden]. They felt strategically that it was the right way to go. I wouldn't disagree. If that's their excuse, then they misread what would happen, and I did, too."

O'Connell, reached last night by telephone, respectfully disputed any notion he and Sinden were the sole architects of the club's failed business plan.

''That was definitely the game plan, and it came from all of us," said O'Connell, noting that Jeremy Jacobs and his son Charlie were part of the plan's design and, in part, its execution. ''I'm not going to lie about that. Were there mistakes made off that plan? Of course. But I'm not going to lie about it -- everyone was aware of it. It was all of us."

The Bruins' plan, which led to the free agent walkaways of key players Brian Rolston, Mike Knuble, and Michael Nylander, among others, was put in place long before Boston management knew the Players' Association would suggest, and later ratify, a 24 percent pay cut on existing contracts.

It also was designed with the belief that other clubs, if well over the cap figure, would face stiff penalties for not heeding the words of Commissioner Gary Bettman in the months leading up to the lockout -- warnings that suggested those clubs would be severely handicapped in building rosters once the CBA was settled. As it turned out, there was very little, if any, penalty for not following Bettman's guidance.

O'Connell sounded relaxed, if not relieved, one day after being taken off the job. It was Sinden who delivered the bad news Saturday night. As of last night, said O'Connell, he had not heard from Jeremy Jacobs.

''When you don't have success," said O'Connell, ''you have to expect something like this could happen. So, I guess I'm a little surprised, but to a degree, I understand it."

For the moment, and perhaps for the long-term, the cleanup has been left to assistant GM Jeff Gorton, who was promoted to GM on an interim basis. He will be aided by Sinden, still the club president, and by Charlie Jacobs, the executive vice president. Sinden's contract has at least another season remaining, and perhaps two.

The senior Jacobs, when asked what kind of person he was looking for to fill the GM role permanently, said he preferred someone who could form a firm bond with the Jacobs family -- similar to Sinden's existence dating back to the mid-'70s -- for years to come.

Gorton is 37, which puts him in strong position, age-wise, and the younger Jacobs in recent days has made it clear he's fond of Gorton and has been impressed with his performance in the front office. Gorton, who started out in the public relations department (similar to Theo Epstein's Baltimore days), in more recent years has coordinated the scouting department and watched over the club's prospects at the amateur and minor-pro level.

''Our turning to Jeff," said the junior Jacobs, ''is based on his impressive performance."

Without a doubt, Charlie Jacobs is becoming more of a force in the entire family-owned product, including the team and the building (TD Banknorth Garden) on Causeway Street. He was very much behind the ouster of Rich Krezwick, the building's popular and capable former president, who was sacked in December. Saturday, he quickly and firmly threw his support behind Gorton, and made it clear the interim is very much in contention to remain on the job, while at the same time contending there will be a broad search for potential new blood.

Jeremy Jacobs, in an interview with the Globe Tuesday, for the first time distanced himself from the 73-year-old Sinden, initially saying changes would have to be made -- and that he would make them ''with" or ''around" Sinden.

Saturday night, very matter-of-factly, the senior Jacobs said Sinden's time was coming to an end, and almost cavalierly painted the inevitable end as a function of lifespan.

''Statistics tell me that men over 70 don't live as long as men over 40," he said. ''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."

It is possible, given Jacobs's tone and candor, Sinden already has told his boss he plans to leave, perhaps once the GM hire is finalized. If he hasn't decided to retire, then his boss's words could be enough for Sinden to seek asylum at the closest AARP boccie-and-punch social. Hardly a cheerful career ending, to have your life expectancy tacked up for all to read in the sports pages.

Short though he may be on sympathy and social pleasantries, Jeremy Jacobs is nothing if not blunt about his business. His days of saying he wants a better hockey product are over. He's now demanding it, and that's something, as noted here recently, he should have sought much earlier in what has been a systematic, excruciating meltdown the last 12-14 years.

Jacobs finally is acting like an owner, a vested owner, something the Hub now takes for granted from its Krafts (Patriots) and Henrys (Red Sox). For nearly four years, Jacobs has had his own flesh and blood on site, reporting back to Buffalo headquarters with the good, the bad, and the ugly on Causeway Street.

Now the fix-up is underway. O'Connell is gone. Sinden, according to the elder Jacobs, is going.

And the circle -- the great circle of strife -- around the spoked-B officially is under repair.

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