Bruins spreading hockey fever

BOSTON -- There's no such thing as a casual hockey fan.

You're either a fan or you're not. The so-called "pink hats" don't apply in this game.

There's a phenomenon occurring in Boston. Don't look now, but the Bruins are on the brink of bringing hockey back to the forefront (or at least pretty close to it) of professional sports in this region. They're on the verge of restoring hockey to the level of respect it deserves in an Original Six city.

The Red Sox had a disappointing summer and failed to reach the postseason. The Patriots' dynasty is in the midst of a metamorphosis. The Celtics, with the new Big Three and now Shaquille O'Neal, have re-emerged of late. Then there are the Bruins.

The Bruins have not won a Stanley Cup since 1972, but if they were to snap that drought, it would spark a celebration on a par with the party feel following the Patriots' first Super Bowl win in 2001.

Believe it or not, Boston is a hockey town. That vibe went dormant for a while, but it's just about back, and the Bruins have an opportunity to crank it to full blast. And the team knows it.

The Bruins have reached the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the past two seasons and have come agonizingly close to the conference finals both times, losing in a couple of Game 7s. Now it's time to move beyond that point. No excuses.

They have all the components in place to do it. As long as the Bruins can stay relatively healthy, they have the goaltending and offensive skill, and with a tweak here and there defensively, Boston has the potential to do some serious damage this season.

Before their recent European trek through Belfast and Prague, a number of Bruins talked about the fact that they know fans are ready to pledge their full-time allegiance to the Black and Gold.

Bruins principal and alternate governor Charlie Jacobs is in his ninth season working for the team and has seen many changes during his tenure with the family business owned by his father, Jeremy. Charlie Jacobs recently talked about how the Bruins have "whet the appetite" of fans with their success over the past few seasons, and that now is the time to capitalize on it.

"If we're fortunate enough to get into the conference finals or the Stanley Cup finals, really, I think this is like a keg of TNT," Jacobs said. "We're sitting on it and hopefully it explodes."

Jacobs has talked about being part of bringing Lord Stanley's Cup back to Boston since his days at Boston College.

"I'd love to," he said.

Jacobs remembers flying into Logan Airport during the 1990 season and having a conversation with another gentleman in line at a cab stand. Not knowing the relationship Jacobs had with the team, this fan was going crazy while talking about how the Bruins were in the Stanley Cup finals against the Edmonton Oilers.

Jacobs is hoping that feeling returns to Boston this season. There are many reasons to believe it could happen.

The decision to name Cam Neely team president was a serious move, with nothing ceremonial about it. The Bruins having the No. 2 overall selection in last June's NHL entry draft, and choosing highly talented Tyler Seguin has fans excited too. During the offseason, the club also traded for Nathan Horton, who has the potential to be a strong offensive threat.

The Bruins also made long-term commitments to Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. General manager Peter Chiarelli's philosophy of scouting, drafting, signing and developing young talent to help the parent club seems to be coming to fruition at both the NHL and AHL levels.

Despite Boston's historic collapse to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring -- when they let a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 slip away -- interest in the Bruins is the highest it's been in decades.

"I was crushed, as was every fan after we lost Game 7," Charlie Jacobs said. "I wasn't sure how we were going to be welcomed back."

Jacobs said the team capped the number of season tickets at 14,000, all of which were sold, and single-game ticket sales have been buzzing.

"The walk-up ticket may be available, but it's going to be scarce -- and that's great," he said. "It's the strongest it's been since I've been here."

The Bruins saw major turnouts for their rookie development camp during the summer, and again for a pair of rookie preseason games against the New York Islanders at the Garden, where nearly 25,000 tickets were sold.

"I felt like not only did we pique interest, but we really have an engaged group here that wants to see this -- not only [Seguin] but hopefully the new additions," Jacobs said.

The Bruins have done a solid job of marketing the team, especially with Seguin and the rest of the young talent in the organization. Even though the Bruins imploded last spring, interest has continued to grow.

"I never panicked, but I knew there was going to be an uphill climb," Jacobs said. "In truth, the additions of the new kids and the addition of Horton, I think, gave us that extra push."

For years, Jeremy Jacobs was criticized for being an absentee owner, one who only cared about selling hot dogs and beer. Charlie has been an everyday presence for the last nine seasons and that has helped the synergy between ownership, hockey operations, players and fans.

"I hope it has helped," he said. "I've really enjoyed my time here in Boston. My kids are here in school and I enjoy the community. I hope I've been able to influence, in a positive way, how my family and my extended family is looked upon in this market."

It's finally coming together and the 2010-11 season could be a special one.

The Bruins returned from Prague with a 1-1 record, and they have two more games on the road before hosting the Washington Capitals in the home opener Oct. 21.

"I feel good about it," Charlie Jacobs said. "Last year we were really close and unexpected things happened with injuries and inconsistent play. I hope our team grew from last year and it will build on it. When I talk to the players, they want a do-over from last year's playoffs. They're hungry for it, and sitting where I do, that's a good feeling."

When Jeremy Jacobs was in town recently for media day at the Garden, he said of the upcoming season: "We're going to underpromise and overperform."

Charlie Jacobs agrees.

"We've got some unfinished business to take care of, and for me that's heartening," he said.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.