There were none tougher or better than Cam Neely

Cam Neely wiped tears away as he announced his retirement.
Cam Neely wiped tears away as he announced his retirement.
Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Cam Neely’s career came to an expected and somber close yesterday, his hip too sore, his body too torn and tattered for the 31-year-old Bruin to consider even one more shift as a human pile driver.

Thirteen seasons after breaking into the NHL as a rawboned teenager for the Vancouver Canucks, and five-plus agonizing years after having limb and life rearranged by an Ulf Samuelsson check, Neely stepped onto a podium at the FleetCenter and bid a Gehrig-like adieu to the game he loves.

``Dr. [Bert] Zarins and the many fine medical specialists . . . have concluded that my right hip injury,’’ said Neely, his voice a painful jumble of emotion, ``is a severe disability that will prevent me from returning to professional hockey.’’

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No prospect of surgery. No pothole-filled, sweat-paved road of rehabilitation. This time neither a doctor’s knife nor a trainer’s diabolic concoction of rubber bands and free weights offered even a glimmer of hope. Done. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the game’s onetime top power forward together again.

``Cam’s dealt with the death of his parents,’’ said former Bruin Derek Sanderson, among those who attended Neely’s farewell. ``And this is like that for Cam, in some measure. His career is dead and now he has to move on—he’s not a hockey player anymore.’’

In his prime, in the days before the destructive check by Samuelsson in the spring of ‘91, Neely did more than play right wing with courage and style. He redefined the position. Before Neely, there were forwards known for their speed, some for their shooting, others for their stiff body checks or maybe grimy work in the corners. There were the Schmidts, Lafleurs, Richards, Hulls and Howes, all of whom played their forward positions with distinctive style, sometimes with grace, most often with ferocity.

Neely, dealt here from Vancouver in the summer of ‘86, packaged all those traits. By the end of the ‘80s, he was known as the game’s first power forward, able to knock down bodies like a runaway train and hammer home goals with the blazing shot of ``Boom Boom’’ Geoffrion. He was to the art of hockey what a blacksmith is to rod-iron sculpturing. Neely showed occasional touches of flair, but for the most part, he met the game head-on, pasting any and all who came across his path.

``There’ll be a lot of highlight clips,’’ said Bruins captain Ray Bourque, one of Neely’s teammates in attendance. ``I’ll just remember him running over people, things like him grabbing the puck and splitting the [defense] to score against [Patrick] Roy—the year we finally beat [the Canadiens]. And I’ll remember seeing stars when he ran over me during a Canada Cup practice.

``It was fun to know you had Cam on your side.’’

He was a presence, always seen and often felt. Neely never scored 100 points in a season and he never played on a Stanley Cup winner, a pair of accomplishments that, though not possible to prove, may have been denied him by the vicious hit from Samuelsson. A debilitating brick-sized bony tumor grew in Neely’s left thigh in the weeks soon after the hit, and later came his chronic knee woes, central to which was a kneecap tracking problem akin to that which ended the career of onetime Bruin Gord Kluzak. Last season his right hip began to turn arthritic.

As good as Neely was, no one ever will know how great he might have been. Neely never played in more than 49 games (twice) in the years that followed the Samuelsson hit, and he suited up for only nine of the Bruins’ next 42 playoff games. In all, he played in 171 games over five seasons, his full-time livelihood reduced to part-time employment.

The anatomical breakdown was endless and unstoppable.

Neely will be remembered for his powerful shot, his struggle with adversity, his time in the trainer’s room and his perfect fit with two sweet-passing centers, most recently Adam Oates and initially Craig Janney. Parked just off the crease on the power play, usually to the goalie’s left, he would take their relays and blast the puck by an unsuspecting goalie, his shots punctuated by clanging pipes and dented nets.

``It’s something that we knew was going to happen all along,’’ said Oates, reached early yesterday afternoon by radio talkmasters Dale Arnold and Eddie Andelman. ``And today’s the black day that it’s happening.’’

Not to be forgotten—and it certainly wasn’t missed on the endless video honor roll last night—was Neely’s signature finesse goal against Ottawa. Streaking down the right side, he pulled up short of the crease, unleashed a Denis Savard-like spin-o-rama and delicately backhanded a shot by netminder Darrin Madeley.

``There really isn’t one particular moment I remember right now,’’ said Neely, asked for highlights he holds. ``Certainly, there were a lot of good moments in my career—individually and as a team. I mean, I’ll remember a couple of goals—one against Quebec when I actually did something different for me: I deked a couple of guys out and scored.’’

Before his leg and hip injuries, Neely won the hometown crowd’s heart as much with his fighting as his scoring. Similar to Terry O’Reilly, who was his coach for two years, the hot-tempered Neely would take on all comers. One of his more memorable dustups in later years was with Claude Lemieux, then with New Jersey, who turtled to the ice when in the clutches of the enraged Neely. Frustrated by his unwillingness to fight, Neely dragged the courage-challenged Lemieux by the scruff of the neck and banged him repeatedly, face first, into the Boston Globe billboard in the corner of the Garden’s dasher.

Lemieux got himself a nose for news. Neely got tossed, and later labeled Lemieux ``a gutless puke’’ as he made his way out of the Garden’s lobby.

The Bruins undoubtedly will find other forwards with broad shoulders and big shots. They’ll find their gunslingers and their sharpshooters, other young men with ``B’s’’ on their chests and fire in their eyes. Doubtful, though, that they’ll find the equal of Neely, for his ability to package all those elements inside one No. 8 sweater.

Long remembered, too, will be the Jan. 3 game this year when Neely, along with then teammate Kevin Stevens, never made it off the bench in Toronto. Coach Steve Kasper, displeased for weeks with the play of both forwards, kept them in cold storage that night, prompting Neely to shed tears the next day at practice. It was obvious then that Neely’s game was fading, and fading fast. He missed 32 of the club’s final 35 games, was unable to perform in the playoffs and departed for a summer of wishing upon a star that never helped his hip heal.

``Unfortunately, today,’’ said Neely, appearing on Causeway Street one last time, fittingly decked out in an open-collared blue shirt, ``I must face the worst-case scenario.’’

The end.