Peter Chiarelli doesn’t believe in what ifs, and he’s not sold on luck, either. Take this particular scenario: What if the Bruins had lost Game 7 against Montreal? Had the Bruins lost that game there’s a very real chance that Claude Julien would no longer be coaching the team. Chiarelli? “I might not be in this seat,” he said.
What the Bruins general manager believes in is a process based on debate, logic and an ability to make the right decisions at the right time. “I try to keep an even keel,” he said. “I think that’s one of my strengths. Sometimes I get criticized for it, but I’m not going to change it. I don’t like being reactionary and I believe [people’s] true colors will come through if you’ve got them right.”
It’s not that he doesn’t understand the bottom-line realities of sports. Chiarelli was a hard-nosed captain on nationally ranked Harvard teams and an agent where every day is its own form of survival. He’s a competitive person, but when that side reveals itself it’s usually in private and never for show.
“I’ve known him for over 10 years and I know by his body language what he feels and how he’s thinking,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “You can tell. There’s always a reason. He doesn’t do it in a fake way.”
What Chiarelli lacks in outward swagger he makes up for with internal confidence. No, he’s not infallible, as he’ll readily admit, but he believes strongly in his decision-making process and he’s comfortable letting the outcomes speak loudest. So when people bring up the Montreal hypothetical, Chiarelli isn’t buying it.
“If that went a different way, despite what people say, I don’t think I should have been removed or Claude should have been removed, because it shows you how perilous things are,” Chiarelli said. “Having said all that, it didn’t happen.”
It didn’t happen because the puck found Nathan Horton’s stick in overtime and Horton, whom Chiarelli acquired specifically because of his ability to shoot, fired a perfect slap shot that sent the B’s on their way to a historic Stanley Cup run. The Bruins won two more Game 7s behind a deep roster that had a dozen players contribute at least 10 points, including three whom Chiarelli acquired just before the trade deadline. They also won because goaltender Tim Thomas played out of his mind a year after Chiarelli stuck with him when people were calling for Tuukka Rask to take over.
“People talk about luck and stuff, well, we won three Game 7s,” Chiarelli said. “There’s lucky things, but when you add up a bunch of other things it’s not always luck.”
“I’ve stuck by our coach because I believe in him and his staff. There’s something to be said for that,” he said. “If you’re making the right decisions for the right reasons, this isn’t about fate or destiny. I just think on the balance of probabilities, it’s going to happen. The right thing will happen.”
The first thing everyone says about Chiarelli is that he doesn’t like the spotlight. “That is correct,” he confirms in the first few seconds of our visit, and it’s a measure of the man that friends and colleagues refused to offer up any anecdotes or offbeat tales. “Peter is a guy who likes to keep private things private,” Chara said. “He doesn’t let too many people into his tight circle.”
But Chiarelli’s understated public persona as Patient Peter belies a track record of bold moves and timely acquisitions, especially in the run-up to the Cup. Beginning in March of 2010 when he acquired Dennis Seidenberg, Chiarelli traded for Horton, Greg Campbell, Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Tomas Kaberle in addition to drafting Tyler Seguin and holding onto Thomas.
A better word for Chiarelli might be precise. His office at TD Garden is a testament to order. It reveals nothing, much like the whiteboard on the wall with a curtain drawn over it. Clutter has no real value here, and this is where he and his inner circle, a group that includes team president Cam Neely and assistant GMs Don Sweeney and Jim Benning, meet to discuss what Chiarelli likes to call “themes.”
The debates are lively and Chiarelli encourages everyone to speak their mind. “He’s able to infer as to what they might be giving him as the gospel or giving him as bull,” said Sweeney, who has known Chiarelli since they were teammates at Harvard. “That’s part of the job, to sift through it. He makes calculated decisions.”
Ultimately, the decisions are Chiraelli’s to make, as he has autonomy on hockey decisions. “When I feel strongly about something, I feel I have to do it and I have to support it,” he said. “The consequences can be pretty dramatic one way or the other. I lose sleep. I know it may not provide instant returns, but the basis behind making [decisions] is pretty solid.”
In the hectic weeks before the trade deadline when the Bruins were struggling and pressure was mounting for him to make a move, Chiarelli had roughly 15 scenarios spelled out on the board. He had two objectives: replace injured center Marc Savard, who was out for the year with concussion issues, and acquire a long-sought puck-moving defenseman. Chiarelli targeted three players and got them all.
Over the course of three days he acquired Kelly, Peverley and Kaberle at the expense of veteran players Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart, top prospect Joe Colborne and a bevy of draft picks. This was not, however, a panic-driven fire sale of the team’s future. Lost in the dizzying deals, Chiarelli held on to a first-round pick he had acquired from the Leafs in 2009 that he later used to draft Dougie Hamilton, a defenseman with a bright future.
“He’s shown both sides of that the ability to blend other people’s ideas, thoughts and experiences and also say, ‘Hey, this is how I see it and this is how we’re going to move forward,’ ” Sweeney said. “The best part about it is we still come out as a unified group. It’s not a democratic process here. It’s not. But the process to get there is collective and he encourages that and actually demands that from each and every one of us because that’s why he hired us.”
Chiarelli grew up in Nepean, Ontario, a region in the city of Ottawa. Hockey may not have his been best sport – he also played baseball and football – but it was his favorite. His father Frank scored 155 goals for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in leading the Engineers to the 1954 national championship; he remains one of college hockey’s great scorers. It was at his father’s side that he first learned the game as a waterboy on Frank’s youth teams. His uncle Robert also was a college player at Clarkson, but he made his biggest impact as a politician, serving two terms as Ottawa’s mayor.
Chiarelli attended Harvard in the mid-’80s when the hockey team was in its glory, advancing to the national championship game when Chiarelli was a junior and winning it all two years after he graduated. Chiarelli was a classic grinder, but he was elected captain as a senior. “They appreciated the fact that Peter gave a good day’s effort when he was out there,” his coach Bill Cleary said. “That’s what kids respect.”
Even then, Chiarelli was careful to deflect attention. Before his senior season he was featured on posters all over campus, and a profile in the Harvard Crimson ran under the headline, “The Reluctant Poster Boy.”
“There were players that were better players than Pete Chiarelli but he was held in high regard,” said Sweeney, who was a year behind him. “It doesn’t always have to be a vocal person to be a leader. Somebody who will lead by example and let their results speak for themselves, and Pete’s along those lines.”
The biggest thing Chiarelli learned at Harvard was accepting his role. It was a lesson he learned the hard way, getting relegated to the junior varsity as a sophomore and adjusting to life as a complementary player. “When guys don’t accept roles it throws the balance off a little bit,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing I learned there, having lived through it. When that happens you’re going to have success.”
Chiarelli returned to Ottawa after graduating from Harvard with a degree in economics and enjoying a brief pro career in Great Britain. He earned a law degree at the University of Ottawa, joined the bar in 1993 and went to work as an agent under the tutelage of Larry Kelly. “It’s a hard job,” Chiarelli said. “It’s a really hard job. I respect agents. I can get into battles with them, but I respect them.”
One of the biggest things Chiarelli took from his time with Kelly was developing a sense of timing, knowing when to push and when to lay back. But he also missed the team aspect, “The all for one and one for all,” as he called it.
Chiarelli joined the Senators in 1999 as director of legal services and became assistant general manager in 2004 working under veteran hockey man Marshall Johnston. “I liked his demeanor right off the bat,” said Johnston, who now works for the Hurricanes. “I wasn’t big on the financial part of it. I could tell right away that would be a forte with him. He did the majority of the contract negotiations.”
As usual, Chiarelli stayed in the background but his work did not go unnoticed by the players. “Even in Ottawa when he was an assistant manager, he was the manager,” Chara said. “I would say 90 percent of the negotiations were done by him.”
Chiarelli felt he was ready for his next step in his career, but the Senators were going through an ownership change, and that’s when things got messy. The Bruins extended an offer in the spring of 2006 and he accepted, but the Senators said he was still under contract and charged the Bruins with tampering. Chiarelli was called to a hearing in New York where he defended himself.
“Honestly, I really think that back then the people who were above him in the ladder were just intimidated by him because he was that good,” Chara said. “He was so smart. They knew he was making a lot of things happen. I personally think they were intimidated by that. I think that was a big mistake for them.”
The experience left Chiarelli angry. “It kind of tainted the transition a little,” he said, but with the benefit of hindsight, he has moved on.
“There was a new owner. I never knew him and he didn’t know me,” Chiarelli said. “The approach that was taken at the time was restrictive. Probably if there was a do-over from both sides it would be different. These things happen.”
When Chiraelli was named general manager in the summer of 2006, the Bruins were at a low point. Their 74 points in 2005-06 were the second worst in the Eastern Conference and they had missed the playoffs in three of the previous six seasons. They had won one playoff series over the last decade and had not reached so much as the conference finals since 1992.
Things didn’t go much better in his first season running the B’s, and they again finished last in the Northeast Division. So, Chiarelli took stock. “There were some times that I felt like I was an island, but that got better,” he said. “I grew as a manager.”
He tries to learn from his mistakes, but one thing he doesn’t do is regret. He fired his first coach Dave Lewis after only one season and hired Julien. He signed Shawn Thornton, one of those invaluable character players, but he also knew there was talent coming that included Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and David Krejci.
The Bruins returned to the playoffs in his second season and racked up 116 points in his third, earning him Executive of the Year honors from the Sporting News, but their progress was thwarted in a tough seven-game loss to the Hurricanes in the 2009 conference semifinals.
That brought Chiarelli to one of his most difficult decisions: The Kessel trade. It wasn’t easy giving up on a player with Kessel’s abilities, and Chiarelli agonized over the decision. “I lost a lot of sleep and hair over that one,” he said. “I’m trading a young, skilled player. There’s no secret what he is and what he’s going to become.”
There was another component to the decision. Kessel wanted out and as a restricted free agent he was allowed to solicit offers from other teams. It’s one thing to decide that you’re going to trade a player and it’s another when the whole hockey world knows you’re going to do it. “That was a tough time,” he said.
So, Chiarelli went to work. He listened to his advisers and analyzed the possible returns. There were two other teams involved right up until the end, but Chiarelli decided that the Leafs offer was too good to ignore: First- and second-round picks in a loaded 2010 draft and a first-rounder in 2011.
“We felt strongly that we were going to get the best returns from Toronto,” Chiarelli said. “It wasn’t just a hunch. It was homework. There was a well-grounded foundation behind the decision, but it was a hard one to do because you’re dealing a player that has so much promise, the fans see it, and if this doesn’t work, wow, they’re going to have my head.”
The return on the deal was still a year away and while Chiarelli listened to the offers, he decided to take the long view. His patience paid off when the Bruins claimed the second overall pick and that led to more offers, including one from Edmonton, which also held the top pick, but Chiarelli held firm.
“With Tyler it wasn’t about instant returns, it was about what he was ultimately becoming and he’s becoming that,” Chiarelli said. “Not without some bumps along the way, but yes, that was the guy. I’ve never said -- and I won’t say -- if we would have had number one who I would have picked, but when we found out we had one of the two picks, I was ecstatic knowing what we were going to get.”
The Bruins drafted Seguin and dealt their own first-rounder to Florida as part of the Horton/Campbell trade. Eight months later at the trade deadline, Chiarelli held onto that 2011 pick from the Leafs and used it to select Hamilton, whom the Bruins view as a potential top-two defenseman.
This is the approach taken by the Bruins GM. That commitment to preserve a key element of the future could have meant the difference between the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup and losing in the first round a year ago. Holding on to that pick could have ultimately put the jobs of both Chiarelli and Julien in jeopardy. But it didn’t.
The process and belief systems were both validated, and the architect of the Bruins roster is too busy to assess how narrow that margin was between glory and disappointment or to bask in the afterglow of his franchise’s first championship in 39 years.
Peter Chiarelli has it all now – the Stanley Cup, a strong foundation for the present and the future -- but don’t expect him to change.
“The players are the most important part of this team. The coaches contribute a lot,” he said. “I prefer to work behind the scenes. That’s the way I operate.”