The Bruins' record last season in Boston Garden was a piddling 17-15-8; it was the first time since 1966-67 that they failed to win 20 games at home. Milbury addressed the issue by using the age-old knee-jerk technique of questioning his players' pride. Says Milbury, "I told them, 'Teams came in here and embarrassed you last year.' " Sometimes the simplest messages are the most effective: This season Boston has improved its home winning percentage from .525 to .707, fifth-best in the league.
After using his captain as a sounding board, Milbury also challenged his players' will to win. Says Bourque, "Mike called me last May, before he even had the coaching job, and asked me all kinds of questions about whether we had the character to win. It seemed like we got satisfied real easy last year and had trouble pulling ourselves out of it whenever we hit a skid."
Milbury decided to make known his doubts to the Bruins the first time he addressed them at training camp. "I didn't think they had the drive to continue to excel after achieving some success, and I'm still not sure," he says. "Fortunately, we have two guys who have character in spades."
Those would be Bourque and Cam Neely. "I can't ever remember saying at the end of a game, 'Raymond didn't feel like it tonight,' " says Boston general manager Harry Sinden, who as either coach or general manager has helped guide the Bruins to 22 straight winning seasons, currently the longest such stretch in pro sports. "We get players in trades, and they can't believe his work ethic."
Bourque, 29, whose five-year, $600,000 contract runs through the 1991-92 season, is understandably miffed that he's making only one-quarter of the more than $2 million a year Gretzky and Lemieux have recently signed for and less, even, than some of the league's other top defensemen, namely, the Philadelphia Flyers' Mark Howe, the Canadiens' Chris Chelios, and Coffey, of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'm not saying he's worth $2 million," says Bourque's agent, Steve Freyer, "but he does put fannies in the seats."
As for Neely, 24, he has thrived under Milbury to become the best right wing in the league. His 33 goals at the break represented a remarkable pace for anyone, but that total was especially large for a player whom Sinden calls "as good a bodychecking forward as we've ever had, on a par with Terry O'Reilly."
O'Reilly coached the Bruins for almost three seasons, and he believed that a player should meet every challenge head-on, much as he did as a player. If the other team wants to play rough, play rough. If it wants to fight, then fight. Not only is Neely Boston's best goal-scorer and checker, but at 6'1", 210 pounds, he's also its best fighter. "Cam and Terry were not always on the same wavelength," says Milbury, "and Cam had a little identity crisis: 'What am I, a grinder or a scorer?' He didn't know when he should drop his gloves."
Milbury has stressed to Neely that he wants him on the ice all night, and if that means skating away from a few challenges, so be it—strange advice from the man who is the No. 2 Bruin (behind O'Reilly) in career penalty minutes. "I was guilty of losing it too often," says Milbury. "I'm not preaching pacifism now, but I learned a lesson. We've been accused lately in the Boston papers of being wimps, but we're not trying to be the toughest team in hockey; we're trying to be the best team."
Wimps? The Big Bad Bruins? Fact is, this Boston team is neither big nor bad. At the break the Bruins were averaging 17.6 penalty minutes a game, second fewest in the NHL and 6.5 minutes fewer than last season. Neely had reduced his penalty minutes from 2.6 minutes a game in 1988-89 to 1.6 this season, and he had incurred only three fighting majors; he had seven at the same point last season.
"I've got to play physical." says Neely, whose smooth, almost calm, skating style belies his tremendous strength. "I can't try to be fancy with the puck like certain players can. But Mike has asked me to try to maintain my cool, and I've been able to so far."