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ON HOCKEY

Here is a Bruins nomination: I like Mike

Peter Chiarelli has a short list of candidates, so short in fact that he said yesterday it's possible he'll name his new Bruins coach prior to the start of the NHL draft Friday night in Columbus.

As for candidates, Chiarelli yesterday remained tight-lipped, other than his slip of the tongue during a WEEI interview when he identified Mike Milbury as being on the list.

"I don't know why I said that," said Chiarelli, reached by phone late in the afternoon, less than 24 hours after he turfed coaches Dave Lewis and Marc Habscheid after one season in Boston. "But they asked and I responded . . . I just didn't catch myself in time. But yes, he's on the list."

Stop right there. No need to add to the list.

Whether Chiarelli knows it or not, he has his man in Milbury.

The best thing for the Bruins, teetering on the brink of irrelevance in this city, would be to bring back the 55-year-old Milbury and park him behind the bench and tell him not to mind his manners. Of course, we're talking about a guy here who once jumped the glass at Madison Square Garden, along with Black 'n' Gold soul brothers Peter McNab and Terry O'Reilly, to beat the stuffing out of three Ranger fans.

Guess there really wouldn't be any need to tell Milbury to drop the good-behavior pretense.

Milbury was in Schenectady, N.Y., yesterday, attending his daughter Caitlin's graduation from Union College. Campus police, by the way, reported there was no unruly behavior related to the ceremonies, which could mean Milbury has mellowed with time or, more likely, no one in the crowd showed up sporting a Blueshirt. I'm betting on the latter.

"I'm flattered to be a candidate for the job," said Milbury, reached early last night by telephone as he made his way from the Union ceremonies. "Now, having said that, I don't have the foggiest idea where I stand on the list of candidates. But I'm happy to be a candidate -- along with a few others, I take it -- and we'll see what happens."

Just as he played, Milbury coached with a passion, a fire that helped the Bruins reach the Cup finals in 1990 and then go three more rounds the following spring. He engaged the team. He engaged the fans.

Seven playoff rounds in two years. Is that legal? Shouldn't there have been a league-mandated investigation? At least an ethics inquiry? Where's John Ziegler when we need him?

Little did we realize it then, but that was just about the end of a golden era in Boston hockey. We were all still so caught up in those Bruins not being the Bruins of the late '60s and early '70s that, well, a lot of us didn't enjoy the moment for the moment. The constant drumbeat back then centered on the disappointment of not winning the Cup, which usually led to a rambling discussion about then-GM Harry Sinden's miserliness and why oh why oh why oh why would he not pay for that one sniper who could put the franchise over the top?

Lost in it all was the fact that those were very good teams, coached by a very good coach.

The loss to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup semifinals in '91 turned out to be Milbury's last hurrah behind the Boston bench. For two regular seasons, he posted a 90-49-21 (.628) mark, and then went 23-17 (.575) in the postseason, winning five of seven playoff series. Today, 16 years later, with the franchise reduced to a state of faux expansion, those numbers pop off the page just as Milbury once popped off behind the bench.

"No, I don't lament it," said Milbury, asked if he regretted his decision to exit the Boston bench. "That's a while ago, of course, but it is what it is . . . I can't look back. That's kind of the old Satchel Paige line: Don't look back because somebody might be gaining on you. No regret.

"But I will say there were times, a year or two after the decision to go the front office, I second-guessed what I did."

In dismissing Lewis on Friday, Chiarelli stressed that he wanted his players to be held accountable. No fear of that with Milbury. One of his specialties while coaching on Causeway was to call a timeout in the opening minutes of the first period if he felt his charges weren't paying attention.

It didn't always shake their lethargy, but at least the message was delivered, and delivered publicly, which was never the case during Lewis's brief watch. Too many coaches don't realize that closed doors too often prove to be nothing but shields for underperforming, undermotivated, unaccountable players.

It was a smart audience back in those days (another thing missing today), and Bruins fans got a kick out of Milbury's tirades. More often than not, the kick the players got from Milbury got them going.

To no one's benefit, including his own, Milbury left the bench in the spring of '91 and began his brief tenure in the front office under Sinden's tutelage. That worked out so well he left within three years, initially opting for the gentleman farmer's life as Boston College's hockey coach, a job he departed before he even began. He has a history of being impatient, seizing the moment. Maybe not great for a résumé, but pretty useful tools behind a bench.

By the summer of '95, Milbury was on Long Island, trying to revive what had become a moribund Islander franchise with tours behind the bench and in the front office. Truth be told, he didn't do a very good job behind the bench or behind the desk, and just weeks ago he decided it was time to move out of Uniondale and try something new. And yesterday we found out that he's already made the Chiarelli short list.

"About all I can tell you right now," said Milbury, a favorite son of Walpole who will spend at least the next month living near his brother in Dartmouth, Mass. "I'm not working right now, and I'm hoping to get back into the game, and for me, there'd be no better place than my hometown."

Could it be this easy? In a town where hockey has become so complicated, so frustrating, so lost on the radar screen, let's hope so. It's a city that deserves better, or at the very least, what it had.

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