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Bruins great is more of a force than ever

No one would have blamed him if he raised his fists to the Gallery Gods and railed against the unfairness of it all. Cam Neely absorbed three mind-numbing blows before the age of 30 -- a cheap shot from Pittsburgh goon Ulf Samuelsson in Game 6 of the 1991 conference finals that ultimately (and prematurely) ended his brilliant career, and two far more devastating losses, the deaths of his parents, Marlene and Mike, to cancer.

He refused to let the bitterness consume him, leaving it to others to lament what could have been. He had never even bothered to notice how many career goals (395) or points (694) he accumulated until it was over. ''I lived for the moment," he said yesterday, shortly after learning he had been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. His one regret, he said, was he wished he enjoyed his ice time a little more.

We have often wished his career spanned 15 full seasons and beyond, instead of 13 fractured ones. Anyone who worked as tirelessly as Neely deserved at least that much. He was a clutch player who loomed large in big games. Consider his playoff totals: 89 points in 93 games.

Yet the loss of his parents long ago put his injuries -- and hockey -- into its proper perspective.

''After going through what I did with my parents, it would have seemed selfish [to be bitter]," he explained.

That's not to say there weren't dark days. Samuelsson's cowardly hit, which caused Neely's knee, hip, and thigh problems, limited him to 22 total games in the 1991-92 and '92-93 seasons. Then, in one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports, Neely returned for the 1993-94 season and potted 49 goals in 50 games. Two years later, he was done for good, unable to sustain his abilities through the crippling pain.

''He had his share of difficulties when his career ended," revealed his brother, Scott Neely. ''But, to be honest, our family was brought up to deal with adversity and carry on. We were taught to pull something positive out of the negative."

There is no more helpless feeling than watching the ones you love die. Anyone who has been there understands the need to try to fix it, even though you can't. The Neely brothers did the next best thing: They created an environment that would help patients and their families cope with a frightening, indiscriminate disease. The Neely House was created in 1995, designed to help cancer patients and their families undergo treatment with dignity and comfort.

''When we started the foundation, it turned out to be a great outlet for Cam," Scott Neely said. ''It gave him something to focus on."

During his playing days, Neely was the optimal blend of power and prowess. He was a burly presence on the ice, choosing to skate through opponents instead of around them. Players were truly afraid of him, and they had good reason. Neely won games with his fists, his bruising body checks, and his soft hands, which enabled him to score 50-plus goals on three separate occasions.

Bruins fans appreciate it when their players have skills, but above all they insist on a certain measure of ruggedness. In that regard, Neely's cup runneth over, even if it never did earn him a sip of the bubbly from Lord Stanley's vat.

He was wildly popular with men and women alike. Anyone who ventured into The Four's restaurant for late-night revelry was safe as long as he or she donned the No. 8 sweater. Walk in with ''Wesley" stitched on your back, and that was another story. The premium in these hockey circles has always been on toughness.

What made Neely unique was in addition to his brawn, he could flat-out score. He used his imposing frame to carve out space in the slot or to unleash killer slap shots, and, just when you thought it was all about being physical, he'd surprise you with one of those wraparound backhanders that slipped into the back of the net.

Neely remembered his parents yesterday as he awaited news of his place in hockey history. He recalled huddling with his family around the radio in his native Comox, British Columbia, in 1983, listening to the NHL Draft and waiting to hear where hockey dreams would take him. The Vancouver Canucks selected Neely with the ninth overall pick, and his parents beamed. He was staying home.

After three seasons with the Canucks, feeling underutilized and underappreciated, Neely was shocked but pleased to learn he had been dealt to the Bruins. His father fretted about his son traveling 3,000 miles from home. Neely's mother was already ill, and Mike Neely was also in the midst of battling cancer.

In their final years, the Neelys witnessed their son blossom into a star. They were proud of him then, but they'd be so much prouder of him now.

The Cam Neely Foundation has raised more than $11 million to help families with cancer. In addition to the Neely House, Cam and Scott have created the Neely Cancer Fund, which supports cancer treatment and research.

It has been almost a decade since Neely played for the Bruins. He's still here, having woven himself into the fabric of our community. The young man who answered the phone at the Neely House yesterday reported Cam is there on almost a daily basis.

''It's something I learned at an early age," Neely explained. ''If you are in a position to give back, you should. Because we can push a puck on a sheet of ice, it would be foolish not to take advantage of that for a greater good."

There are precious few professional athletes who submit a glittering resume in competition, then go on to surpass their legacy outside of the game.

Cam Neely has accomplished that. He has proven to be every bit as determined and courageous and focused in his efforts to help patients and their families with cancer as he did in leading the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals.

Those of you who celebrate his induction this morning should take a page out of Cam Neely's playbook. Log on to your computer, type in, and make a donation in recognition of No. 8 in your (old) program.

Do it in honor of the man, not just the hockey player.

Asked yesterday how he'd like to be remembered by his fans, Neely answered, ''That I gave everything I could."

Pretty nice. Nearly 10 years later, he's still doing it.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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