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Colageo: Boston Bruins Hold onto Sweeney for Good Reason



Boston Bruins

“Read and react” were the first words Don Sweeney ever spoke to me as a defenseman for the Boston Bruins.

Obsessed with hockey since the 1960s, I was new at conversing with NHL players in the early 1990s when Sweeney was just coming into his own, albeit skating in Ray Bourque’s massive shadow.

But the professionalism with which Sweeney approached the game was notable to a novice reporter who could see why a smallish kid from New Brunswick playing prep school hockey in nearby Concord, N.H., convinced chief scout Bob Tindall to recommend GM Harry Sinden select him in the 1984 draft.

Sweeney grew his game over four years at Harvard University and, after parts of two AHL seasons mixed with NHL opportunity, proved himself a keeper.

As a player, Sweeney was very good at the read-and-react part of being a defenseman, and he combined natural speed with grit, intelligence, intensity and consistency befitting a pro. Off the ice, his sense of accountability in life translated to his approachability when asked about an occurrence in a just-completed hockey game.

His playing career was equal parts opportunity and challenge. Joining a Bruins blue line learning to live without Gord Kluzak and Michael Thelven (bad knees) and soon to see further deterioration during NHL labor strife that saw the Bruins part ways with Garry Galley in 1992 and Glen Wesley in 1994, Sweeney kept taking on more responsibility and emerged as a core member of the team as it approached the end of the Boston Garden era.

In the new arena, he’d soon be promoted to the more-experienced player in tandem with Kyle McLaren. A mainstay in a wake of Bourque’s trade to Colorado, Sweeney even endured a winter in Mike Keenan’s doghouse and came out the other side, playing two more seasons in Boston before spending the only year of his career in another NHL organization with Dallas in 2003-04, his final season.

When the league canceled the 2004-05 season, I happened upon Sweeney at the 17th tee at the TPC in Norton, site of the second stop for the PGA Playoffs. We talked more golf than hockey, but given the NHL’s intention to speed up the game, I asked if he was considering coming back. The miles had told him it was time.

Three years after leaving Boston as a player, Sweeney returned to the organization in 2006 when new GM (and former Harvard teammate) Peter Chiarelli hired him as director of Player Development. From there, Sweeney has recreated his legacy as a team player in management, learning as much as he can and making decisions according to what would best serve the Bruins organization.

It was always understood that the Bruins would keep trying to win for, as Sinden said, “you never try to lose.”

What has happened in the nine years since is yet undercelebrated by a market still stinking from two decades of empty champagne bottles and utter confusion at any local team’s season that dare end without a parade of duck boats.

That’s the noise of social media and sports radio, but it’s not all of Boston sports fandom. The masses that congregate at North Station on game nights, take photos in front of the Bobby Orr statue and hopefully have tickets are in the moment and inherently positive.

Causeway, in its completed iteration, has become a festive meeting place, and an underrated reason why is how often the Bruins (and the Boston Celtics) send the patrons home with a victory.

While 47 wins with two games remaining render another 50-win campaign impossible, the Boston Bruins continue to maintain a 50-win average per 82 games over Sweeney’s nine-year tenure as GM. That number goes up to 52 if you discount the first two transitional seasons.

This is a rare accomplishment in today’s NHL, where tanking, however offensive to Mr. Sinden, is more applauded than rewarded.

Hockey Canada seems to understand what has been accomplished here and last week named Sweeney GM of Team Canada for the 4 Nations Face-Off in 2025 and assistant GM for the 2026 Winter Games.

To Sweeney’s credit, he is the last guy who will begrudge consumers their absolute right to judge management according to the playoffs. And, in a town with a generation of fans that grew up winning, losing leaves their teeth grinding like an angry dog’s canines on the ankle of the more memorable things that have gone wrong.

The second season is likely to begin in Boston next Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Might as well play their daddy now, I say.

Win or lose in the playoffs, this is a great era for Boston Bruins hockey. Sweeney has carried the mantle as a character player in the continuum of the franchise’s celebrated culture. Anyone who misses this because he can’t get over the end of a dream Boston sports era suddenly bygone will in the long run regret it.

In another transitional era, say 2006-ish when the Bruins actually stunk, my former colleague Nick Tavares liked to play a game called “Count the former Bruins in the Playoffs.” Well now that the Bruins are in the playoffs for the eighth straight spring, let’s play anyway.

We’ll start with Chris Wagner of the Colorado Avalanche – who would have thunk it? The Western Conference is home to more players who spent significant time in Boston, including Tyler Seguin and Craig Smith (Dallas), Jeremy Lauzon (Nashville), and Colin Miller (Winnipeg).

I don’t count Ryan Lindgren (NYR) because he never actually played for the Bruins, nor teammate Blake Wheeler, whose in-season injury will keep him out of the Rangers’ plans. The two former Bruins solidly in the Eastern Conference playoffs are 2024 deadline pickups turned UFA’s: Tyler Bertuzzi (Toronto) and Dmitry Orlov (Carolina).

Other former Bruins who could appear if their teams’ bubbles don’t burst: Austin Czarnik and Michael Hutchinson (Detroit); Mike Reilly (NYI); Garnet Hathaway (Phil.); and Reilly Smith and Noel Acciari (Pitt.).

Not a big year for legacy Bruins playing for other teams in the 2024 playoffs, unless Wagner, for instance, becomes a postseason hero.

Random playoff thought: How much do the Lightning wish they could roll out Yanni Gourde? Alas, the Kraken center who seems made for the Stanley Cup playoffs will sit this one out.

Of course, Vegas was going to extend Noah Hanifin, who by the way was widely reported to be Sweeney’s end game with the 2015 draft maneuvering that landed Boston its three consecutive first-round picks (remember the dog and the ankle?).

Alec Martinez, the left-shot incumbent in the final year of his deal, will not be brought back, not with Hanifin scheduled to average an annual $7.35 million on an eight-year contract and 2023 playoff heroes Jonathan Marchessault and Chandler Stephenson needing new deals.

Despite the most-significant usage (exploitation?) of LTIR since the Lightning held back Nikita Kucherov for the 2021 playoffs, Hanifin’s path to Vegas remains less compelling than where every player in Carolina’s June 23, 2018, trade of Hanifin and Elias Lindholm to Calgary for Micheal Ferland, Adam Fox and Dougie Hamilton is now.

Neither Calgary nor Carolina has any of these five players, three of which are widely believed to be among the NHL’s top 20 if not 15 defensemen and one of the other two being the most-coveted forward traded during the 2023-24 season.

Fox was subsequently traded to the Rangers, while Hanifin and Lindholm (Vancouver) were the biggest catches of the 2024 trade deadline. Concussions leveraged Ferland out of the game in 2020, while Hamilton signed with the Devils as a free agent.

Despite more famous draft picks playing for national finalist Boston College this season, coach Greg Brown leaned on Bruins prospects Andre Gasseau and Oskar Jellvik for help when things got desperate. Yes, BC failed to score in the NCAA final against a very NHL-like Denver squad, but Gasseau’s net-front presence and Jellvik’s playmaking ability got the Eagles some great looks.

Is either a future Bruin? Only time will tell.

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