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Brass knuckles: Neely VP

He doesn't have a business card with a spoked "B" on it yet, and he is still without an office at the corner of Legends Way and Causeway Street, but ex-Bruins winger Cam Neely yesterday joined the bedraggled franchise's front office as a vice president.

One of the most revered players in franchise history, Neely will be somewhat of a front office jack-of-all-trades in the new position, which was created specifically for him. The 42-year-old Hall of Famer will share his wisdom and advice with general manager Peter Chiarelli and executive vice president Charlie Jacobs, making him the VP of Serving Two Masters, both of whom hope he can infuse some vim, vigor, and perhaps a little vinegar into the franchise.

Bruins fans, many of whom left the building over the last 15 years and remain planted firmly in a field of apathy, now have Neely's battle-scarred countenance to consider as the face of the franchise. Whether he lives up to their expectations remains to be seen, but Neely, once one of the NHL's most fearsome players, has a history of delivering when it comes to the Black and Gold, dating back to his first days in a Boston uniform in October 1986.

Asked if he were comfortable knowing that New England hockey fans would perceive him as the face of the franchise, Neely said, "At this particular time, yeah, absolutely. I've been around long enough. I had 10 great years playing here. It was not an easy decision. I had to look at all aspects of the organization, but I am ready for this challenge, ready to help Peter and the staff and Charlie get this franchise back to where we want it."

That's Neely, never short of conviction, and that boldness could be a valuable guiding light now, with the Bruins overshadowed in town by the twin behemoths, the Red Sox and Patriots. Adding to their struggle to be relevant, the Bruins this summer became the weaker of the two orphaned sisters on Causeway Street, the Celtics making bold roster moves that portend to bring Gang Green back to relevance. The Bruins, meanwhile, toil as if they were the California Golden Seals, spirited off to the Hub of Hockey in some bizarre witness protection program.

An exhibition game at the Garden against Toronto Saturday afternoon had fewer than 100 people in the seats for pregame warmups. Team owner Jeremy Jacobs, in town yesterday for the Neely announcement, part of the club's annual media day festivities, said attendance for the Leafs game was "around 5,000," or roughly half of the announced gate of 10,877.

The hockey business is not good in Boston. In fact, it is the worst it has been since Jacobs/Delaware North Companies took over stewardship of the then-Big, Bad Bruins 32-plus years ago.

"Not where it should be," confirmed the senior Jacobs, appraising this troubled appendage of his empire. "Not for a franchise like this - and not for the great city of Boston. Football and baseball is on everyone's mind here. The basketball team has created a lot of heat by getting [Kevin] Garnett. We have to start performing."

In his playing days, Neely could meet such a challenge by locking sight on an opposing defenseman and drilling him through the boards. He can't do that now from the front office, and the game has changed dramatically in terms of what it will tolerate on the ice.

But in Neely's eyes, which burned with small licks of fire as he became the game's first power forward, one of the club's missions has to be returning to the style of physical play that once was in the DNA of nearly every Bruin.

"I still think you can approach the game the way I approached it," said Neely. "If you can take the body, you take the body. You can still hit in this league. From the top player to the fourth liner, you have to take the body, take a hit to make a play. Everyone has to be accountable on the ice."

Neely has more than the statistics (395 goals/694 points in 726 games) and the sensational video clips (a turtled Claude Lemieux getting dragged and pounded, face-first, into the old Garden's boards) for proof of his force and forte. He also could present a full body scan that would reveal a hip that had to be surgically replaced, a brick-sized bony mass still calcified in a thigh, and a banged-up knee that ultimately brought his house down. He figures his nose, just a touch crooked, was broken at least eight or nine times.

"Eight or nine? Come on," said veteran winger Glen Murray, the only current team member who played in Boston with Neely. "That's one side broken eight or nine times - and 10 on the other."

Murray has been around long enough to recall when every NHL roster carried two or three players well versed in the art of rough-and-tumble play. Now, he figures, there aren't 10 of those guys, true heavyweights, in the entire (Original 30) league. He also figures that Boston hockey fans still love the way the Bruins played in Neely's day.

"The game has changed," noted Murray. "You don't have to be a hockey genius to figure that out. For the average fan today, the game is about scoring. But for the hockey fan - the real hockey fan - it's about Cam Neely."

The makeover of the Bruins continues, and now Neely, a borrowed bit of their past, gets a chance to put his legendary spirit and knuckleprint on its future.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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