Charlie in Charge

By John Gonzalez | Boston Magazine |

The Red Sox just won another title, the Patriots look poised for their fourth of the decade, and even the Celtics have the swagger of champs again. Which leaves the hapless Bruins fighting to rescue themselves from obscurity. That’s where Charlie Jacobs—son of the team’s notoriously aloof and tightfisted owner—comes in. Poor guy.


About 400 season ticket holders have filed into the TD Banknorth Garden for tonight’s Bruins town hall meeting. Though it’s August, and an oppressive humidity is steam-cleaning the entire city, some wear black jeans and heavy Bruins jerseys. They’re the kind of people who played street hockey as children and grew their hair shaggy like Phil Esposito. For most franchises, these sorts of team-sponsored gatherings are mere grip-and-grin sessions, a way for fans to feel good about the money they willingly hand over for the privilege of attending games. That’s not how it works here, though. Not with this team. Not the way things have been going.

Nearly five months earlier, the team had finished the season with the third worst record in the Eastern Conference. In an effort to get the evening off on a happier note, the fans tonight are treated to free popcorn and soda and pretzels, as well as the opportunity to hear from some of the franchise’s most influential people. Seated on a stage facing the crowd are players Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara, general manager Peter Chiarelli, and 36-year-old Charlie Jacobs, who runs the team. They are joined by everyone’s favorite former Bruin, Cam Neely. (Every time Neely speaks, the fans practically clap their hands raw. “Must be nice to be Cam Neely,” Jacobs will tell me later. “Everywhere you go, people give you a standing ovation.”)

The panel collectively promises that the Bruins will play harder during the upcoming season than they did the year before. But the fans are in no mood to listen. Back in the early ’70s, when the team was in the process of winning two championships in three years, the Bruins owned Boston. But since Charlie’s father, Jeremy Jacobs, bought the team 33 years ago, the Bruins haven’t won a single Stanley Cup. And lately they’ve been awful, especially after trading fan favorite Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks, where he went on to be named the NHL’s most valuable player. Meanwhile, the success of the Red Sox and Patriots, along with the excitement the Celtics have rekindled by bringing in superstar Kevin Garnett, has made it increasingly difficult for the Bruins to grab headlines. Or paying customers. Kevin Paul Dupont, the Globe’s outstanding hockey writer, recently revealed how truly grim things have gotten on Causeway Street after two consecutive last-place finishes: According to his mole, the Bruins’ season ticket base has fallen to approximately 4,000 (in a building that holds 17,565 for hockey), a number so low that under NHL expansion standards, it would disqualify the city from being awarded a franchise, were it trying to start a team today.

And yet the fans here tonight still care enough to shell out to attend games. And along with their tickets, they’ve paid for the right to bitch. So when it comes time for the Q&A session, that’s what they do. One after the other, they eagerly body-check the organization the way their favorite goons might have done decades ago when their team was still the Big Bad Bruins. Nostalgia, it turns out, just might be the Bruins’ toughest opponent these days. Several fans rise to wax poetic about yesteryear. One even says he prefers to watch reruns of classic Bruins games rather than the current incarnation. Afterward, Savard will shake his head in amazement and say, “That was kind of intense, eh? I looked at their faces and thought, Jesus, we might need some people to hold them back.” In the moment, though, everyone on stage remains calm and poised. Well, just about everyone.

Charlie Jacobs seems uncomfortable. His arms stay folded as he listens to the criticism, and because he’s a skinny guy, he looks almost invisible at times. For much of the evening he says little, choosing to let Chiarelli field many of the questions. When he does address the assembly, his style is awkward. He’s polite, but he doesn’t open his mouth much when he talks. He looks wooden as the words escape from a thin slit between his teeth, as though he’s doing the dummy part of a ventriloquist act. Still, Jacobs acquits himself nicely for most of the session by merely sitting there. Why further antagonize faithful customers? When your job is to defend the indefensible, to appease the few supporters you have left, the best strategy is to simply absorb the blows.

 

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Just when the event is looking like a success, a 22-year season ticket holder rises from the tall grass to snipe at Jacobs. No one has time to tell him to duck. “How,” the man asks, “do I respond to fans and friends who question ownership’s commitment to winning? If Nashville and Columbus lose, that’s one thing. But we’re talking about the Boston Bruins. That’s hard to swallow.”

Jacobs tries to play the tough guy. “You’re damn right it’s hard to swallow,” he says. But the words sound meek and forced, Woody Allen reading lines written for Nicholson or De Niro. Jacobs gathers himself and tells the fan how the team has invested millions in the Garden, which the Jacobs family owns, and North Station. He tells him how the Bruins are going to spend right up to the league limit on player salaries this year, how the team has gone out and signed some big-name talent. All of this happens to be true. But Jacobs doesn’t stop there. And that’s when the trouble begins.

“Part of the turnaround,” Jacobs says, “is playing in front of a sellout. We were disappointed to only have 10 of our games sell out last year. We have a $10 seat out there and a $19 seat. It’s the general apathy that we have to break.”

It is an astonishing thing to hear. Telling these fans, who surely sleep covered in Bruins bedding, that their apathy is “disappointing” is the PR equivalent of telling your wife that she needs to do something about those saddlebags. It’s self-immolation. But Jacobs doesn’t blink—not when he strikes the match, not after flambéing himself to a blackened crisp.

Weeks later, he sees no reason to rub a balm on the wound. That’s because he doesn’t think he—or the team—has been scarred. In fact, he doesn’t even recall the incident. Which is part of the problem. During the same conversation, he asks what I think about his performance at the town hall meeting. I tell him. He doesn’t take it well.

“Really?” he finally says, his face flushed. “Everyone I talked to said it was fine.”

 

Back in 2001, Charlie Jacobs was living out in California with his wife and children. He had a nice, quiet, successful life, having just turned a tidy profit after selling a Web business he’d created. It was around this time that he and his father began knocking around the idea of Charlie moving to Boston and getting involved with the Bruins. While the team hadn’t won a title in some time, it still had a solid history—one that included 22 straight seasons of playoff hockey, from 1975 to 1996, under his father’s stewardship. It seemed like a good move. Jacobs was fit and handsome, if a bit introverted, and he loved the sport. Better yet, he knew Boston, having graduated from BC. He had also served as an alternate on the NHL board of governors (and still does), and had worked in th
e marketing and finance departments of the L.A. Kings for a short while. Jeremy Jacobs made no promises to his youngest son about running the organization—he simply told Charlie his role would “evolve” over time. At first, he would just watch and learn.

With Charlie observing from the background, the next few years would turn what had been a stable, relatively successful franchise into an unmitigated disaster. By 2004, hockey had already sunk far below the other three major sports leagues in popularity. Though it barely registered a pulse at the time, the NHL made the curious decision to approve a lockout, essentially shutting down operations until the players agreed to pay cuts and a salary cap. The owners were crying poverty, claiming that the sport was on the road to bankrupting itself. That was bad enough for loyal Bruins fans—having to go without hockey while millionaires bickered with other millionaires over who should be richer. Worse, though, was that right there in the middle of it all, busting heads as commissioner Gary Bettman’s chief Pinkerton, was Jeremy Jacobs.

Jacobs may own the Bruins, but at heart he’s a Buffalo guy. That’s where he lives, and where Delaware North, the umbrella company that houses all the smaller concerns that make up the Jacobs empire, is headquartered. The company employs some 40,000 workers to handle international interests in video gambling and race tracks, real estate holdings, and food service. Oh, and hockey. Which is pretty much how Bruins fans have always felt about Jacobs’s priorities—that hockey comes last. In 2006, the $86 million the Bruins reportedly brought in was less than 5 percent of Delaware North’s $2 billion in revenue. And though one of the league’s most recognizable and lucrative franchises, the Bruins have traditionally spent far less on player salaries than other big-market clubs. The year before the lockout, for instance, the team’s payroll was about $46 million. That same season, the Detroit Red Wings spent about $78 million, the New York Rangers spent $77 million, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ payroll was $65 million. The fans, taking all that in, have long suspected that Jeremy Jacobs cares more about the profit margin than the win column.

 

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And he’s been hammered because of that perception. Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, ever subtle, once wrote that Jeremy Jacobs is a “Montgomery Burns character who runs a bottom-line business from Buffalo and wouldn’t know a hockey puck from a hamburger.” Way back in 1999, before he started covering the Patriots, the Herald’s Mike Felger called Jacobs a “thief.” (Jacobs threatened to sue, and the paper was forced to print a retraction.)

The irony was that the lockout was supposed to change all that. The Bruins all but promised fans that, while it would be painful, once the lockout was over the team would be better positioned to deliver the championship Boston so desperately craves. Instead, the opposite happened. Management seriously miscalculated the effects of the very league overhaul they’d been out front promoting. Harry Sinden, who served for 17 years as team president, recalls that “we let five or six players go because they weren’t going to fit into the salary cap. That’s what we thought. Well, as it turned out, they would have if we had kept them…. So we got stuck, and there’s no denying it.”

It quickly became evident that the fans had reached their breaking point—they were no longer going to abide Jacobs’s business-as-usual approach. As Cam Neely says, “For the most part, the fans are dying to come and support the team…. But they’ve gone from being disappointed to mad to wait and see.” Adding to the problems, when Jacobs looked in the mirror he saw, by default, the face of the franchise: a man who didn’t live in town and who lacked the energy and passion displayed by the new breed of owners, palm-pressers like Robert Kraft and John Henry here in New England or, in the most extreme case, Mark Cuban down in Dallas. Jacobs wasn’t the sort of man to move to Boston and marshal a parade down Boylston Street (and he definitely wasn’t going to be doing the Charleston with some leggy blonde on Dancing with the Stars). But things were going to have to change, and fast, before fans stormed the Garden with pitchforks and torches. With the organization reeling, the job of salvaging the Bruins’ image and, harder still, the Jacobs name, fell to the only person who wasn’t expressly tied to the lockout disaster.

As his father had promised him years earlier, Charlie Jacobs’s role had at last evolved. His apprenticeship was over, and he was now the face of the franchise. His relatively thin résumé left some people openly questioning whether he was seasoned enough to lead in that way, especially since the job at this most challenging of moments would have been a nearly impossible task for even a battle-tested NHL executive. Whatever the drawbacks, there was no other choice. The Bruins started offering him around town for media interviews, and parading him in front of potential team sponsors.

After all, what was the worst that could happen?

 

Sitting in his office at the Garden, Charlie Jacobs leans back in a deep, comfortable chair with huge armrests—the kind of chair that looks like it could swallow a man whole. The room overlooks the Expressway and a giant advertisement reminding motorists to buy Celtics tickets. Jacobs has short, sand-colored hair, which makes his ears appear to stick out a little, and a strong chin and cheekbones. He’s also thin—perhaps because he likes to stay in shape (he was on the U.S. equestrian team), perhaps, it’s easy to imagine, because of the pressures of the job.

The Bruins have gotten off to a decent start this year. But even as the team is playing better (thanks in large part to Chiarelli, whom Jacobs hired as general manager before last season), Jacobs’s task, in many ways, remains as taxing as ever. His job is rooted in something less easily defined than winning—it’s about perception and marketing, about making the city love the Bruins again, about getting fans to trust ownership. His is a battle for hearts and minds, and we all know how difficult those wars are to win—particularly in a town where the other teams are so wildly popular. No matter how well the Bruins play, there’s no guarantee in this newly title-demanding city that anyone is going to pay attention.

“It could be a lot worse,” Jacobs says. “My job becomes stressful when the team doesn’t perform well. In a lot of ways, I feel responsible when that happens. We’ve had our knocks. And we have high expectations for the organization. So do the fans. In many ways, this team is a public trust—you’re more of a steward than an owner when you run the Bruins. But I don’t see it as a burden. I see it as a great opportunity.”

 

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It is an opportunity, however, that some feel he either squandered or, worse, was never capable of seizing in the first place. Jacobs certainly had the right name for the job, but plenty of people who work with him say he’s got the wrong personality. One person intimately acquainted with how the organization has operated under Charlie Jacobs describes him as a wallflower, content to sit quietly in meetings for hours on end. “An organization is a reflection of the top slot,” the source says. “When the top slot is filled by someone who is introverted and distant, that message gets carried to the fan base…. He could sit in a three-hour meeting and say five words. He’s not a leader.”

Jaco
bs seems annoyed by this criticism, bothered to have to even discuss it. He says his management style is to empower his department heads to run their divisions, and then to make decisions—which may or may not happen in full view of his subordinates—based on what they tell him. “I might sit in a meeting about tickets and listen to our director of ticketing or our director of marketing without saying a word,” Jacobs says. “I don’t find that as a fault or a quality of being a shy person. I think that’s more about understanding exactly what’s happening, taking it into account, and, frankly, if it needs direction, or it needs a slight adjustment in one direction or another, then that can happen, but it doesn’t necessarily have to happen in a group of five or 10 people.” In the time since Jacobs has taken over, several longtime executives have left the team. The turnover has led to some hard feelings among both those who remain with the team and those who’ve been let go, which Jacobs’s supporters blame for the negative perceptions of his leadership.

Some of Jacobs’s employees compare his style with that of Kraft, Henry, or Celtics boss Wyc Grousbeck, all of whom, they believe, are superior to Jacobs at community networking and brand enhancement. Those same critics bash him like a piñata for his perceived failings. “There’s a baseball team in the Back Bay,” says someone who’s worked closely with Jacobs. “I’m sure you’ve heard of them. And a football team down in Foxboro. When they’re courting a potentially lucrative sponsor, they’ll have the owner and GM and whoever else is necessary come into that meeting to kiss babies and shake hands and do whatever it takes to secure new partnerships. In the Bruins’ case? There’s almost no support at all. There were a handful of times when [Jacobs] was paraded in front of sponsors to give the high-level, behind-the-scenes report—the state of the union. And he really failed to make any sort of positive impression. After that, we asked for help, but we didn’t necessarily want him front and center.”

 

This is where it gets sticky, or at least uncomfortable. When you’re talking to Charlie Jacobs about Charlie Jacobs, he puts his guard up, like a kid who’s been hit so much he reflexively flinches, even when there’s no cause for concern. Dealing with the press is something Jacobs would obviously prefer to avoid. “I don’t mind it,” he says, “but PR control, media control, those are oxymorons—there is no control. I know the way it works. It’s the dance they’ve done forever. Regardless of how well you know them, you’re still surprised by what I view as ‘the shot,’ so to speak.”

The media have certainly weighed in on Jacobs’s leadership. Shaughnessy wrote in the Globe that he “underwhelms us,” and the Herald characterized him as unqualified. But these are veritable attaboys when it comes to sports criticism in this town—especially compared with the pounding his father has taken. And yet those around him insist he’s been treated unfairly. “They’re beating him up,” says Chiarelli, whose office adjoins Jacobs’s, adding, “If I was in his shoes, it would bother me. This is his family business. He wants to succeed, and he’s passionate about it. It would be upsetting to me.”

As a result of his unease with the press, Jacobs is more likely than not to have Chiarelli or one of the players field interview requests. He repeatedly tells me he doesn’t think he’s the story. Or maybe, given the family history, he simply doesn’t want to be. Either way, the overall effect has created an image that makes Jacobs look suspicious of the media, which, in turn, has made many in the press suspicious of him.

“It’s not smart,” says Mike Salk, who covers the Bruins for the 890 ESPN radio station. “They need a face of the franchise, and he’s not very good at it…. You don’t really have a player to be the face of the franchise. Zdeno [Chara] is the best player, but he’s not very media-polished. For years, you had [former Bruins captain Ray] Bourque and Neely. Now, you have Charlie. That’s not good.”

The press coverage of Chiarelli’s hiring crystallized Jacobs’s opinion of the media. The way the reporters had it, a guy named Ray Shero was at the top of the Bruins’ list for the GM job, but he ended up taking the same position with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jacobs says the writers had it all wrong. He claims one reporter saw Shero at the airport, figured that he had to be the number one choice, and ran with the story, creating an avalanche of misguided speculation about whom the Bruins were targeting.

 

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“I called every beat reporter,” Jacobs says. “I spoke to everybody. You know what they said? ‘Great. Thanks.’ Boom—they hung up. And when they were wrong, which I tried to forewarn them about, or inaccurate—don’t print ‘wrong’—when they were inaccurate, it was the Bruins’ doing, not their own. Talk about shy—I was pretty direct with everyone in that process.”
The truth, though, is that Jacobs is shy. You hear that over and over. From past and present employees. From reporters who cover the team. From a lot of people. But like most of us, Jacobs doesn’t relish hearing uncomfortable truths. He hates it, actually. When I mention it to him, that people think he’s reticent, he balks and gives me a list of people who have worked with and for him. He asks me to call them, saying they’ll show another side.

So I do. John Wentzell, president of the Garden and Delaware North–Boston, and Sean McGrail, president of NESN, both have glowing things to say about Jacobs, that he’s a proactive and involved leader. As does Rick Abramson, who has worked for the Jacobs family in various capacities for 41 years, and who is now president of Sportservice, the sports-stadium catering business that serves as Delaware North’s cornerstone. It’s clear Abramson is a big fan of the entire Jacobs clan: He gushes about how the patriarch allows him to run a half-billion-dollar company, and about going to Australia with Charlie’s brother, Lou. “See, the family is probably very tough for the media to understand,” Abramson says. “Charlie is very shy, and most of the Jacobses are shy. It just seems that….” He pauses, searching for the right words. “People think they’re not as out there as they should be.”

 

During our conversation in his office, Charlie and I are chatting cordially when the topic turns from the mundane to his dad. By most accounts, Jeremy Jacobs is a tough man to work for. Earlier, when I’d asked whether his father had given him a pep talk or a pat on the back when he began working for the team, Charlie smiled and said, “You don’t know Jeremy Jacobs,” later adding, “He’s a guy who expects results, and he wants them today.” Now, though, when his father comes up, he withdraws, looking away and fidgeting in his chair. Suspecting some sort of sneak attack, his defenses go on full alert. He’s all fierce loyalty. “My father is a huge figure in my life,” he says. As he sits there in a blue button-down shirt and khakis, his clothes suddenly look too big for him. “I’m a little cautious right here. I don’t know what direction you’re going. I’m a little nervous about how you’re gonna paint him…. I don’t want you to write a story that says, ‘Here’s Charlie Jacobs
and here’s Jeremy Jacobs, the villain’—as he’s been painted so many times.” As he trails off, Charlie Jacobs’s true motive with the Bruins reveals itself. His goal has less to do with making the Bruins champions—that’s Chiarelli’s task—and more to do with protecting his father.

“The family legacy is important [to the Jacobses], and Charlie is really doing everything he can in Boston,” says Abramson, the Sportservice president and family friend. “Sure, he wants to please his father. I think anyone would. His father built this business up. His father took over this business when he was 28 years old. That’s a hard act to follow. The chairman, he isn’t going to hug you. But when he lets you do things, that’s the biggest hug he could give you.”

And what better way to return that embrace, to make Dad proud, than to take the heat that might otherwise be directed at Jeremy Jacobs? What better way than to be the fall guy?

I don’t care what you write about me, but don’t misrepresent my dad.

 

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As the conversation—which will turn out to be our final sit-down—continues, Charlie Jacobs grows increasingly anxious. He asks if I’m sympathetic. I tell him that I don’t think he or his father can win in this town, that the public perception is cemented, that I wouldn’t want to be him. That just makes him more nervous. “Here you go out and paint a story that says, ‘Jacobs can’t win in this city,’” he says. “Isn’t that perpetuating?” He asks to see the story before it comes out, a request no journalist would grant, even though Jacobs swears it’s general practice, and claims that the Globe will show him a story to avoid “confrontations post-publication.” (The paper denies this.) When I refuse, things grow uncomfortable. Finally, Jacobs sighs in resignation. He looks frustrated and defeated and worried, like a man who wants to go off and hide, but can’t.

A few weeks later, during Bruins media day, the team introduces Cam Neely, Bruins hero and critic, as the new vice president. To everyone in attendance, it feels like the team is finally, and rightly, waving the white flag. It feels like Jacobs is about to do what he couldn’t during our conversation—step away from the spotlight. It just makes sense—keep him in town to oversee the operation, to be his father’s point man, but let the universally loved Neely be the face of the Bruins. As one of the team’s all-time greats, Neely had already served in that capacity as a player. When the Globe’s Dupont flat-out asks Neely if he’s ready to take over that role, to be the guy people identify with Bruins hockey, Neely doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he says.

A few moments later, I approach Jacobs and ask whether he agrees that Neely has just been designated the face of the franchise. He shoots me an incredulous look. “I would be real cautious doing that at this time,” Jacobs says. “We’re going to afford Cam every opportunity possible to be involved in this team. But Cam hasn’t worked for an NHL franchise before. So, while we’ll open doors for him in every aspect, including scouting, both professional and amateur, sitting down and prospecting, drafting, cap management, front office duties, I would be cautious to say that someone who has yet to work in the National Hockey League could come in and be the quote-unquote face of the franchise. That’s a rather large task.”

Yes, it is.