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Kasper Made Big Mistake Benching Stars

Jim Iovino

Before the Jan. 3 game between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, Bruins coach Steve Kasper supposedly asked for management's support in benching two of the team's superstars, Cam Neely and Kevin Stevens.

After management gave Kasper the OK, the rookie coach dressed the two players and sat them on the bench for the entire game without giving them a single shift. As the game progressed, more and more attention from the fans in Maple Leaf Gardens and announcers calling the game turned to the two humbled players sitting at the end of the Bruins bench.

The Bruins tied the Leafs 4-4 without the services of Neely and Stevens, the rest of the team picking up the slack left behind by their absence. After the game it was apparent that the two players weren't happy with the stunt their coach pulled.

Two days later, Neely talked to the media about the situation. "If he thinks that I'm not good enough to play on this team," Neely said. "To help the team win a hockey game, that's his decision and his opinion. But I know my opinion doesn't mean much to him."

To think that Cam Neely doesn't give everything he's got every game is absolutely ludicrous. Cam Neely is the heart and soul of the Boston Bruins. The team looks to Neely for inspiration. Just to think of what Neely has had to go through just to make it back into any kind of condition to play the game of hockey would boggle the mind. You'd think that after playing with Neely for three seasons in Boston, Kasper would realize the odds Neely was up against. Take a look at the pain he's had to endure during his career as a Bruin and try to tell me Neely isn't happy just to be able to play hockey every night of the season.

*Slipped right kneecap -- March 1988
*Fractured right thumb and inflamed right knee -- Dec. 1988
*Suffered recurrence of right knee inflammation -- March 1989
*Hyperextended knee -- Oct. 1989
*Injured Thigh -- May 11, 1991; missed first 38 games of season
*Suffered knee inflammation -- Jan. 1992
*Knee surgery -- Feb. 3, 1992; missed remainder of season
*Arthroscopic knee surgery -- Sept. 17, 1992; missed first 60 games of season
*Injured knee -- Mar. 1993; missed 8 games
*Injured knee -- April 1993; missed 3 games
*Reinjured knee -- Oct. 9, 1993; missed 3 games
*Injured knee -- March 22, 1994; missed 12 games

"I've been through a lot," Neely said to reporters outside the team's practice rink. "I've played through a lot, and to be treated like that, it's tough."

You're damn right it is, Cam. For a player of your stature in the Bruins organization, there was no need for you to be disgraced in front of the rest of your team, the fans in attendance and those who were watching on TV. Add in the fact that you're leading the team in goals (20), and there's little or no evidence that you're playing any worse than anyone else on the team. Kasper should not have publicly singled Neely out.

However, I don't believe all of the blame has to fall squarely on the shoulders of Kasper. The man is just trying to save his job, which is in severe jeopardy considering the record his team has amassed this season. By benching Neely and Stevens, Kasper took some of the pressure off himself and dished it out to his players. Smart move if you're trying to save your career. Not too smart if you want to keep any kind of relationship with your players.

Blame has to be given to management, in particular general manager Harry Sinden and assistant general manager Mike O'Connell. To let a rookie coach try to save his own butt by trying to place the blame for the team's shortcoming on a franchise player is beyond absurd. Things like this just shouldn't happen.

But Harry Sinden is out of the old school of hockey, where players were treated like dirt as long as the team was doing poorly or losing money. And although I don't want to say that his attitude should be expected, I'm not at all surprised.

However, what the Bruin organization has to learn is that Cam Neely and Kevin Stevens are more than just hockey players. They are also people with feelings. People who take pride in what they do. This entire situation was handled poorly, and now that feelings and pride have been hurt, there's nothing that can be done to rectify the situation.

The best thing that the organization can do is hope that Neely and Stevens will forgive and forget. The best thing that Kasper can do is hope another job opportunity comes up at the end of the season.

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