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Neely an impact player in charity arena

The underlying contradiction is that Cam Neely, back when the world knew him only as a hockey player, wasn't anyone's idea of a builder.

Square-jawed, rawboned, and nostrils flared, he showed up here more than 17 years ago, and what he built was a career based on destruction -- crushing people to smithereens with devastating body checks and tearing goalies asunder with powerful slap shots. Framed by the old Garden's small ice surface, Neely played with an oversized passion and might.

Without question, it would add up to a post-hockey career as (1) Hollywood stuntman; (2) sole proprietor of CMN Mining and Blasting; (3) governor of California; or (4) the world's first hands-only blacksmith.

But, go figure. A life's work of breaking things apart led to a passion for trying to put lives back together.

"Because of hockey, obviously, I have an opportunity to do some things," said Neely, who was honored last night by Northeastern's Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. "The stuff I'm doing now, it's gratifying and rewarding, but to be honest, more than anything it's therapeutic for me. Any athlete who doesn't take advantage of being able to give back in one way, shape, or form isn't missing out just on the chance to help someone else, but the chance to know how good it feels to be the one who helps put a smile on a kid's face -- and you can do it just because you were able to shoot a puck around or shoot a hoop or throw a baseball."

More than seven seasons have gone by since Neely last played for the Bruins. Even before he packed up his 395 career goals and 694 points, he had the Neely Foundation for Cancer Care up and running, with eight apartment-style rooms at the Tufts-New England Medical Center. The Neely House, now fully endowed and expanded to 16 rooms, helps to ease the emotional and financial needs of families who are coping with cancer.

Success for Neely these days isn't measured in goals or assists or navigating the nuances of a new contract on Causeway Street. But he still has a certain fascination for crunching numbers. From the start, he said, his charitable mission was to help people cope with cancer. And for those who contributed finances to the cause, he wanted them to see the results that the dollars brought. His best days now are when he can draw a line on the bottom of a fiscal year and see that 92 cents out of every dollar raised have gone directly into the fund, only 8 percent lost to administration fees.

"We're always looking to bring up the numbers -- both in total dollars raised and dollars directly into programs," said Neely, who estimates total contributions at some $11 million over the foundation's eight-plus years. "I guess the competitiveness never goes away."

The Center for the Study of Sport in Society bestowed the Lenny Zakim New England Hero Award upon Neely. Zakim's name is on the Big Dig's signature bridge, just at the edge of Causeway Street, where Neely made his name.

"Obviously, it's a great honor," said Neely. "Lenny braved the battle of cancer himself, so there's that connection with what we're doing at the foundation, which adds even more meaning. And to be remembered along with someone who did special things with his life, battling racism and anti-Semitism . . .

"There are people out there like Lenny Zakim who've done wonderful things. I'm honored to have my name mentioned with his with this award."

Neely runs the foundation with his brother Scott and Andy Osofsky, the charity's development officer. Patricia Rowe is the live-in manager at the Neely House. The inspiration behind it all was the fight that the Neelys' parents, Mike and Marlene, waged against cancer during Cam's later years with the Bruins.

"Don't ask me what years, it's all kind of a blur," said Cam. "Besides, I'm better with seasons, because of hockey, and Scott's better with the years. I think my parents would think it's neat that their names were being carried on this way."

Mike ultimately fell victim to brain cancer, his wife Marlene to intestinal cancer.

"Unfortunately, virtually everyone's been touched by the disease, in one way or another," said Neely. "Like everyone else, we'd love to see it gone for good, and hopefully that day will come. What we wanted to do, in the meantime, was kind of fill a void -- to make it better today for cancer patients and their families. There's tons of money being dumped into research, and that's great, but we wanted to do things for people now."

Six years into the foundation's operation, the Neely House fully funded, Scott and Cam were at somewhat of a crossroads: Should they scale back and leave the house as the fund's legacy piece or keep rasing money for new initiatives?

Answer: What's a builder without something to build?

These days, said Neely, the foundation is "all over the map," finding new ways to help patients at the Tufts-New England Medical Center as well as the institution's Floating Hospital for Children. One project, a $2 million commitment, has been to spruce up NEMC's bone marrow and stem-cell facility. Another $2 million project has been earmarked for the pediatric stem-cell project at the Floating Hospital.

"It's about making a nicer environment for the kids while they're there, and for when their parents visit," said Neely. "When a kid's sick, a parent wants to be as close as possible, and we're making those rooms bigger and more welcoming. We'll have theme rooms, too -- hockey, baseball. We're contacting teams to see what they can help us with." Meanwhile, Neely's non-foundation hours are full, too. He lives in the suburbs with his wife and two children, fills his life with the mundane pleasures that come with making the morning dropoff at school or the impromptu beginner's soccer practice. He's 38 now, and when that troublesome right hip begins to ache, he dashes off a mental note that reminds him to be smarter about stretching and exercising. After all, there remains the chance he'll have to have hip replacement surgery.

"Doing my best to hold that off as long as possible," he said.

On Jan. 12, the Bruins will retire his No. 8 in the FleetCenter rafters. Last night, Neely took a bow for different deeds, a life now spent with a little less muscle, but with no less will.

"I don't look at the foundation as my career," said Neely. "It's a passion for me."

No underlying contradiction there.

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