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ON HOCKEY

With new coach, the show begins

Over and over and over again, Dave Lewis, introduced yesterday at the Garden as the Bruins' new head coach (and future ex-), underscored his philosophy and mission statement that all his players will hear in the weeks and months to come.

``I'm a believer," said the 52-year-old Lewis in ``Show Me!"

Whatever you are as a Bruins player, or whatever you want to be, Lewis will demand you prove it. No telling what that might have meant for the direction of the bumbling franchise if Lewis had been on the watch when Joe Thornton was still wearing the No. 19 Black and Gold sweater. Had Jumbo Joe been made shift-to-shift and game-to-game accountable, to the point of having his ice time trimmed or his captain's `C' unstitched, perhaps the trade to San Jose would not have been necessary. Anyone who wasn't watching through teal-colored, Pro-Joe glasses knew he was done in the Hub of Hockey, unless Mike Keenan suddenly walked back through that door.

``Show Me!" of course, is a first cousin of ``No Excuses!" Lewis comes across as easygoing, mild-mannered, and media friendly, but he contends he is no stranger to confrontation. If he has a faker on his hands, he'll let him know it. If a guy is out of shape, the coach will be in his face. If a guy is preaching the old, ``I'm giving it 100 percent," straight from the union guidebook, and practicing only half that, the old, mustachioed coach is going to give him: A. an earful, and B. a seat at the far end of the bench.

That's what Lewis says.

To which everyone here should say to Lewis: ``Show Us!"

Lewis sure sounded good. He was direct and glib and his answers to the media's questions were, for the most part, developed. This is a guy who understands what a question is about, does not take it as a personal affront, then extrapolates for a sentence or two. He appears to get it, in terms of communicating the product, and that was one of the prerequisites to getting the job. It's a franchise in desperate need of someone who will engage the players, the media, and the fans. As heaping as that order may sound, he might be able to pull it off.

Now, can he win? Can he show us? Can he produce from behind the bench the way he will ask his players to produce on the ice?

No one, not even Lewis, knows that answer.

General manager designee Peter Chiarelli, who made the decision to hire Lewis out of coaching limbo, liked what Lewis did during his two-year stint as the Red Wings' head coach. What Chiarelli liked most, he said, was that Lewis made his players accountable. There's that ``Show Me!" thing again. And there is no disputing that the Wings put up strong numbers those two seasons, collecting 219 of 328 points for a .649 winning percentage. He took over where the legendary Scotty Bowman left off, and kept on winning. Until the playoffs. A couple of early postseason knockouts ultimately knocked him off the job.

``Of course, how could Dave grab their attention? He's been here forever," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said the day he fired Lewis. ``I think he did an unbelievable job of making the transition -- but you can only go so far."

The day he got canned last July was not a good day, Lewis recalled yesterday. Although he didn't agree with Holland's premise, he said, he also understood that if the boss believes there is a problem, then there is a problem. Holland believed the players had stopped listening, and when the GM believes his coach has become high-priced elevator music, the coach's days are done.

``Winning's hard, and you all have to be on the same page," mused Lewis. ``And if you're not . . . I thought I was going to be a better coach in my third year, but the third year never came."

Now he has a second chance at that third year, even if it is here at The Jacobs, some 725 miles east of The Joe. Chiarelli, in his first major move as the new GM, signed Lewis to a four-year deal, the length equal to the deal Chiarelli signed as GM last month.

At the moment, though, Lewis has no way of knowing exactly to whom he will say, ``Show Me!" Assistant GM Jeff Gorton said yesterday at least two remaining roster players will be issued buyout papers today, and also said the club doesn't plan to make any quick offers, if any at all, to any of the team's eligible-to-become free agents as of tomorrow (the traditional July 1 starting date of free agency). The likes of Brian Leetch and Hal Gill are free to look elsewhere for future employment.

The luxury for Lewis is that expectations around here for the Bruins are lower than they have been since the mid '60s, pre-Bobby Orr Bruins. Unlike his two years behind the Detroit bench, Lewis doesn't have to win a whole lot to make Hub of Hockey fans happy. A strong, competitive regular season, one full of promise and one without drama and controversy, would be a joy to behold. A playoff berth might win the new coach a lifetime contract extension. And actually to win a playoff series, well, that could mean . . . sorry, sorry, that's just cruel daydreaming.

For now, beginning with September's training camp, all Lewis has to do is live by his word, have his players prove their worth.

``If you say you are a leader, you don't have to tell me, I will find out," said Lewis. ``Once you put on the jersey, there is nowhere to hide."

That's true, too, if you put on the suit and stand behind that bench. The franchise that has fired almost everyone (Zamboni driver applications due no later than 11 this morning) now has a GM telling us he hired a new coach because he sounded accountable, and the new coach wants everyone to live up to their potential and their word.

Old concepts, all of them, but painfully overdue.

Show us, Coach. Because the few who remain will all be watching.

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