BOSTON – Louis Jacobs helped bring two things to Buffalo in 1940. The first was a son, Jeremy, born in January of that year. The second was professional hockey. The two have been connected ever since.
“Hockey’s been part of the fabric of our family for my whole life,” Jeremy Jacobs said.
Jacobs’ life work was rewarded Thursday when USA Hockey presented him with the Lester Patrick Trophy, awarded annually for outstanding service to the sport in the United States. The 75-year-old owner of the Boston Bruins and Delaware North was humbled by the honor, going so far as to question Gary Bettman’s truthfulness when the NHL commissioner called him with the news.
“I didn’t believe it. I said, ‘How do you know?’ ” Jacobs said with a smile during a sitdown with The Buffalo News. “I was awestruck. Really. I was taken aback. It’s very humbling and very, very flattering. It’s a unique feeling because it’s something you don’t anticipate.”
The honor shouldn’t have been as shocking as it was. While Jacobs calls Bettman the engine of the NHL, the Buffalo native can be looked at as the conductor. Jacobs has served as the chairman of the board of governors since 2007, helping drive the league to its most prosperous era.
“It’s a great to see the evolution of hockey in this country,” Jacobs said. “It’s been amazing. We’ve gotten the teams south and in the deep west, where we never were before.
“When I think of expansion, I’m thinking of the National Hockey League expansion, but each time that moves, it moves so many other things with it. By that I mean the game starts to take on roots of its own in those communities. That’s the part that really counts. That’s the part where you get the community involvement. That’s the excitement.”
Jacobs sees potential for much more growth. As one of hockey’s key decision-makers, he’s helping funnel money into the grassroots level to get more people playing.
“What we’ve focused to fund on within the league is the growth of youth hockey,” Jacobs said. “It’s how do we grow it and put money back into the system, as opposed to the necessarily team issues in the system. It’s how do we make the awareness better, how do we get the experience more.
“Being in Buffalo you know what it takes getting a kid ready to play hockey. It takes a family to get to the rink. You can’t send them out with a basketball. You’ve got to get them there, and it builds community and it builds interaction between parent and child, which I don’t think other sports can match.”
Jacobs saw firsthand how families can interact through hockey. His father purchased the American Hockey League team based in Syracuse in 1940 and moved it to Buffalo, where it became the Bisons. Jeremy Jacobs became an owner in 1975 when he bought the Bruins.
His standing as one of the NHL’s longest-tenured owners is what led to him becoming a driving force in the NHL and Bettman’s go-to guy.
“I was one of the earliest owners that is still in existence today, so I think in some way I’m a resource as to the history of it all, not that I’m a particularly great historian,” Jacobs said. “But every time you mention something it has a history to it. I think when you first start something, you look back and you talk to some of the oldest people involved with the league and say, ‘How do you see this?’
“So I think you carry a little different message. It’s not a short-term message. It’s a long-term message.”
Jacobs’ focus on the long term has led to many unpopular decisions, particularly two lockouts in the past 11 years. But the chairman sees how the shutdowns to create a salary-cap system have benefited the league and will continue to do so.
“We’ve achieved something that other professional leagues have attempted or will attempt or have gotten in place,” he said. “That is a balance of competitiveness. That competitiveness really comes about by the balance of our cap system.
“When you see a Tampa or a Carolina team win the Cup, you know that you’ve got some balance there. It’s not a big-city only.”
Jacobs also sees the cap working in the NHL’s favor when it expands, which seems inevitable given the applications supplied by Las Vegas and Quebec City.
“If you’re an expansion team today, because of the market like it is you can be competitive in a year or two or three,” Jacobs said. “You couldn’t before because you couldn’t build that, where the way the draft goes and things like that make a difference. They can get right into it much earlier because they’re going to have the same dollars to spend that you have. In fact, they’re not obligated by some bad deals you made.
“A new team coming into the NHL has a better chance to be competitive faster than their predecessors.”
Jacobs, who said his proudest moment was winning the Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 2011, sees success coming in Buffalo. He’s worked with multiple Sabres owners and presidents, but Jacobs views the team in a positive light with owner Terry Pegula and team President Russ Brandon.
“I think that franchise is going to flourish,” Jacobs said. “I really do. Terry is a hell of an owner. Russ is a professional manager. He knows what it takes to put things right, and they’ve got some great talent there.
“I think they and Toronto are two cities that are going to reflect well in the future. When you think of the competition in that area, their time is now.”