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The Brains Behind the Bruins: GM Peter Chiarelli

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With the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins going in opposite directions over the past two seasons, Ken Warren of The Citizen examines the success of former Senators executive and Ottawa native Peter Chiarelli.

The brain behind the Bruins

By Ken Warren Ottawa Citizen/May 1, 2009

Thanks to the Boston Bruins’ quick dismissal of the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the National Hockey League playoffs, general manager Peter Chiarelli was allowed a rare luxury last weekend.

Chiarelli escaped to Fenway Park, watching the Red Sox play host to the New York Yankees, a perfect place to ponder where he is and where he has came from, if he felt so inclined.

The Nepean native has become an adopted son in Boston after spending four years at Harvard University in the 1980s, earning his economics degree while also serving as captain of the school’s hockey team. Due to the Bruins’ success, he has also become a central figure in Beantown’s ultra-competitive professional sports world, which also features the New England Patriots and Boston Celtics.

The Bruins, who opened the second round of the playoffs Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, are leading candidates to win the Stanley Cup. After a dismal decade, the Bruins are once again players in the marketplace, back on the front of sports pages. Accordingly, Chiarelli’s stock is also on the rise and a recent story in The Hockey News ranked him fourth among the NHL’s 30 GMs.

“It has been a real good experience,” says Chiarelli. “The Bruins hadn’t won a playoff series in 10 years and everyone’s excited. We’re getting attention, our (television) ratings are great and our attendance has been outstanding. But I will tell anyone who will listen that it’s just one round. We have to keep it going.”

The Ottawa Senators are certainly listening. For a while, Chiarelli, a former Senators assistant GM, appeared on course to be running the Senators, allowing for plenty of discussions about where they might be now if Chiarelli was still around.

Yet for all the talk about what might have been in Ottawa and for all his successes as the architect behind the Bruins’ recovery — 16 players have arrived since Chiarelli took over three years ago — he could, in many ways, also be described as an accidental GM.

Chiarelli, 44, hardly took a traditional route to the position. It’s safe to say that no other NHL general manager has quite the same résumé, a laundry list of jobs which includes time as a professional hockey player in Europe, and stints installing sprinkler systems, hammering nails as a roofer and serving as a substitute high school teacher in Ottawa.

“I had no inclination towards (becoming a general manager),” he acknowledges. “I wanted to be a lawyer.”

Chiarelli actually was a practising lawyer for a time, but the hockey world kept drawing him back, one way or another.

Rewind to his days as a teenager and you’ll find a scholar/athlete. When he wasn’t skating as a forward with the Ottawa Jr. Senators of the Central Junior Hockey League or the catcher for the Ottawa-Nepean Canadiens of the Quebec Major Junior AA Baseball League, he was a bookworm, an honours student at Sir Robert Borden High School.

“He never made the top competitive (hockey) teams until midget in Nepean, he was never one of the top all-stars,” says John Mackenzie, one of Chiarelli’s closest friends growing up. “When he was 16 or 17, he knew he was going to go the (U.S. college) route. He’s very smart, but he’s a down-to-earth good guy, there’s nothing fancy about him. He’s part of a salt-of-the-earth type of family.”

“Playing in the Central League, there were games in Smiths Falls, Hawkesbury, Pembroke, and sometimes, he wouldn’t get home until 1 or 2 in morning,” says Frank Chiarelli, Peter’s father and a standout hockey player himself. “But he never missed a day, he never missed an assignment and he was never late. He always maintained a better-than-90-per-cent average. He was just that kind of kid.”

The senior Chiarelli, who was a teacher at Sir Robert Borden when Peter was a student, says he pleaded with a fellow teacher to instruct his son in Latin, a course which was no longer on the official curriculum.

“When he was in high school, I saw Pete as a renaissance kind of kid, he had a knack for literature and languages,” says Frank Chiarelli. “And then he goes to Harvard … and he ends up being a rink rat.”

Peter Chiarelli’s combination of athletic skills and brains landed him a scholarship at the Ivy League school. He was a catcher during his junior varsity year at Harvard (he agrees with suggestions he might have had more natural talent for baseball than hockey), but stuck to hockey because of his love for the sport.

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, was among Chiarelli’s teammates at Harvard. “Apart from being a great player, he has always been a natural leader,” says Carney, who was Chiarelli’s best man at his wedding. “He’s a fierce competitor and, above all, an excellent judge of character.”

Chiarelli also knew his own limitations as a player. “I was a good player, but I knew great players,” he says. “Steve Yzerman was in the same circles as I was. Maybe I just wasn’t fast enough. Of course, every kid has that dream of playing in the NHL and they hold on to it until it ends.”

When Chiarelli left Harvard, he wasn’t quite ready to give up on the playing career. He signed with the Nottingham Panthers in the British Hockey League for the 1987-88 season. He scored four goals and nine assists in four games and was leading the league in scoring, and was promptly released without much of an explanation.

“It’s the English League, things happen,” he says. Despite offers with rival teams, he wasn’t keen on bouncing from team to team and came back to Ottawa, uncertain of his next move.

The Harvard economics grad picked up odd jobs roofing, putting in sprinkler systems and serving as a supply teacher at St. Mark’s High School in Manotick. He applied to law school at the University of Ottawa and was accepted.

By 1993, Chiarelli had his law degree and he spent the next six years splitting his time between legal work and as a player agent working under Larry Kelly.

“I had started doing some recruiting and scouting for Harvard and I liked it and that’s when I started to think about being an agent,” he says.

While Chiarelli insists he hadn’t given any thought to becoming a general manager until he joined the Senators as director of legal relations in 1999, Kelly says Chiarelli always possessed the right attitude and aptitude for such a position.

“He always had an opinion and he would give me an honest opinion,” says Kelly. “When we did differ (on ideas), we would always differ without anyone feeling bitter. He also understands that he has to have people around him who have conviction and that’s so important. He’s a quiet guy, a pensive guy, but I always felt he had the ability. He’s a good judge of talent and he’s also a good administrator.”

After half a dozen years learning the NHL business from the players’ side, helping negotiate contracts and preparing players for arbitration cases, he jumped at the opportunity to join the management side when the Senators hired him.

Chiarelli, an expert in contracts, wanted a taste of NHL management and then-Senators general manager Marshall Johnston wanted to concentrate on hockey issues.

As his responsibilities grew, he was officially given the title of assistant general manager under John Muckler in 2004. He was the worker bee in the background, deeply involved in everything, including trade talks and overseeing the development of players with the Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton.

He was ready for next step. As much as Chiarelli has a link to Boston, all the pieces seemed to fit perfectly here. It seemed inevitable that he would eventually take charge of the Senators’ franchise.

He knew the game from both sides. He had his own deep sporting roots in the community. He is a nephew to former mayor Bob Chiarelli and is part of yet another family with deep sports ties to the city, marrying Alicia Brancato, daughter of longtime Ottawa Rough Riders coach George Brancato. The couple has two children, Talia, 13, and Cameron, 12. Talia is a gymnastics star, while Cameron is a multi-sport athlete, excelling in hockey, football and baseball.

Alas, the stars didn’t align perfectly. Instead, it was the Bruins who stepped up to the plate, hiring Chiarelli from under the Senators’ noses in May 2006 to replace Mike O’Connell, who was fired as GM after the Bruins failed to win a playoff series in six seasons.

Even when the Bruins came calling, it’s believed that Chiarelli would have stayed with the Senators if owner Eugene Melnyk had been willing to guarantee him the general manager’s job at some point in the future.

As it turned out, Muckler remained for only one more season, fired and replaced as GM by former Senators’ coach Bryan Murray after the team’s run to the Stanley Cup final in 2007. The Senators collapsed in the second half of 2007-08 and were swept in four games by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. This season, they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

When Chiarelli did leave, it was a complicated, somewhat bitter departure. Melnyk demanded a conditional draft pick from the Bruins for losing Chiarelli, who had become invaluable. The matter eventually went to arbitration in front of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Chiarelli wasn’t allowed to officially leave the Senators for another six weeks, after the entry draft and the opening of the free agent signing period.

During that period, he was allowed to hold interviews for a new Bruins coach (he hired former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Dave Lewis), but wasn’t allowed to be involved in player personnel decisions. It was a frustrating experience for Chiarelli, as Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard were signed to large free-agent contracts, when the Bruins were technically being run by interim GM Jeff Gorton.

In his initial interviews with the Bruins, however, Chiarelli had made it crystal clear that he wanted to structure the team around a star defenceman and a front-line centre. Chara was the most prominent defenceman available and Savard was among the most attractive centres, making Gorton’s decisions fairly obvious.

He wasn’t an overnight success as a general manager. He hit his share of speed bumps at first. There was some concern about Chiarelli’s job security after the club again finished out of the playoffs in 2006-07, last in the Northeast Division and 13th overall in the Eastern Conference with a record of 35-41-6.

He was roundly criticized for his hiring of Lewis (Chiarelli fired him and replaced him with Claude Julien following the season). Chara struggled in his first season with the Bruins, trying to do too much to help the team and fans were critical of the his five-year, $37.5 million U.S. contract. Marc Savard’s five-year, $20-million U.S. contract also drew fire, as did trading scorer Brad Boyes for slick defenceman Dennis Wideman of the St. Louis Blues.

While the Bruins turned the corner in 2007-08, qualifying for the playoffs, Chiarelli was again under the gun last summer for signing Michael Ryder to a three-year, $12-million contract. Ryder had been benched in the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, who had knocked out the Bruins.

Now, it has all turned the other way for Chiarelli, who is being lauded for keeping an eye on the future while keeping the team at the top of the NHL now, a complicated balancing act in a salary cap system.

“It’s a lot of responsibility, but in my opinion, it fits him perfectly,” says TSN analyst and former NHL goaltender Darren Pang, who went to middle school and high school in Nepean with Chiarelli. “Anybody who knows him knew he could take on that responsibility. He has the ability to listen to the people around him and he doesn’t shoot his mouth off for no reason.”

Chara has become the rock on the club’s defence, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as top defenceman, and Chiarelli has built a defence around him. Only one defenceman, Mark Stuart, remains from the pre-Chiarelli days. Wideman, acquired in the controversial trade for Boyes in 2007 and re-signed to an eyebrow-raising four-year, $15.85-million contract, has become the club’s star skilled defenceman.

Ryder, meanwhile, scored 27 goals in the regular season and was the scoring star in the first round against his former team. Savard finished eighth in league scoring with 88 points is no longer the defensive liability he was earlier in his career.

The Bruins are also loaded with young, skilled forwards, including David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler, who scored 21 goals after being signed directly out of college by Chiarelli last summer. All told, 10 players had at least 40 points during the regular season, a scoring balance matched only by the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.

Pang says Chiarelli has taken advantage of his own experience and has surrounded himself with other quality, experienced hockey people in Bruins management, including Cam Neely, Don Sweeney, Jim Benning, Scott Bradley and Adam Creighton.

He has also caught some breaks along the way. While he signed former Minnesota Wild goaltender Manny Fernandez in 2007, with an eye towards him becoming the club’s franchise goaltender, it was veteran Tim Thomas who has become the star netminder after Fernandez battled injuries. Julien, the Orléans native inexplicably fired by the New Jersey Devils before the playoffs in 2007, was available for Chiarelli following the Lewis firing.

Through it all, Chiarelli says his philosophy has stayed the same.
“I didn’t change my approach from the first year to the second year,” he says. “Obviously, I had to change my coach. That was the big thing. But the message was the same. I wanted to get guys to play hard, character guys.

“At the end of the day, you have to make the right decisions at the right time and you have to have a group of people around you that you can trust. All general managers make mistakes. And, yes, there is some luck involved. It’s not an exact science.”

Chiarelli’s career is also evidence that life doesn’t always work out exactly as planned. Yet if the Bruins are able to advance all the way, Chiarelli will be back here to share some of the glory.

“We miss him up here in Ottawa,” says Carney. “We are looking forward to his bringing the Cup on our next fishing trip.”


IMHO Warren's suggestion that Chiarelli might have stayed in Ottawa had Melnyk offered him the GM position, is intriguing.

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