Those Cam fires burn on brightly
Boston still carries a torch for one of the Bruins' best, who'll be honored tomorrow
At his best, which is what tomorrow night is all about, there was far more to the way Cam Neely played than what his job description tells you. To categorize the former Bruins right winger as simply a "power forward" would be as remiss as slipping in word of an impending meteor strike at the tail end of a weather report.
Surrounded by family, friends, Black-and-Gold alums and thousands of teary eyes sprinkled among the sellout crowd of 17,565 at the FleetCenter, the 38-year-old Neely will hoist his No. 8 to the rafters shortly after 7 p.m. Forever and a day, his name and number will hang in the Hub of Hockey's heavens, with the likes of Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Terry O'Reilly, and the half-dozen other spoked-B icons who have added such distinction to Causeway Street through the decades.
"It's funny, but I let other people remember my career more than I remember it," said Neely last week, sitting in a conference room at his downtown office. "I tend to remember seasons more than moments -- how we did as a team in a given year, like when we finally beat Montreal in the playoffs in '88, and then after that, how I did. That's the way each year wrapped up, thinking about how to get better the next year, rather than on what you'd done."
For the most part, that was how Neely played and thought to the very end, until a pileup of knee and hip injuries finally forced him to call it quits in September 1996. Only 31 years old, and with maybe a couple of hundred goals left to harvest, he bundled up his 694 career points and went off to retirement -- the focus of which has become the charitable foundation in his name, offering financial and emotional support to the families of cancer victims.
The Vault's center-ice messageboard tomorrow night will show the requisite highlight reel of Neely's 13-year NHL career, including shots of his early days in Vancouver, when he broke in wearing the Burger King-style uniforms sported by the Canucks in the mid '80s. Mark Chambers, the Bruins' director of game presentation, sliced and diced videotape for well over 100 hours, with no fewer than seven round trips to NESN, in hopes of capturing the essence of Neely's career in four minutes-plus of celluloid memories.
"So much stuff, and good stuff, too, man," Chambers said late last week, shaking his head as he considered some 11th-hour editing. "I did Bourque's and O'Reilly's tapes, too, and there was just so much to cover. With Cam, it was the hitting, the fighting and the scoring . . . just that buzz he created when he was out there, that sense that there was always something about to happen. I wish everyone could see what I've seen, putting this together, because at times it was just mesmerizing."
60-minute power play
What came through most of all in Neely's 10 years here was that meteorlike force, the ferocity, of everything he did. Power, yes, but more, far more.
His slapshots were blistering, his bodychecks devastating, and his fights were often frightful, Neely ripping at an opponent the way a bull gores and then thrashes a toreador. For those who forgot all that, the video replay tomorrow may be shocking at times. We live in an age now when NHL fights are mostly schoolyard tug-o-wars, combatants grabbing hold of one another's sweaters and spinning 'round until everyone grows weary of the no-punch monotony. The end of Neely bouts were more bloody dismemberments than exhausted disengagements.
Lyndon Byers, these days a WAAF radio personality, last week recalled the night Scot Kleinendorst caught Neely with what turned out to be the unluckiest punch the Hartford defenseman ever threw. Staggered by the shot, Neely pulled himself together between periods, not really needing a reminder from O'Reilly, then the head coach, that those kinds of confrontations had to be squared up.
"What a job he did on Kleinendorst," Byers remembered. "It had to be the third or fourth left hand -- wham! wham! wham! -- right to the guy's face that broke his nose. And I'm there thinking, `See, the guy's mistake was, he beat Cam. He got in that lucky shot, and now what's he got for it? A broken nose. Heck, you don't want to beat Cam; make it respectable, that's all.' But Kleinendorst had to test him."
Neely's trademark rage never was completely settled with archenemies Ulf Samuelsson and Claude Lemieux. To this day, the mention of their names percolates a rumble from within before Neely quietly utters, "They played the game the same way -- and I didn't respect that."
Samuelsson, then with Pittsburgh, played a menacing role in the 1991 playoff collision that eventually left Neely with a brick-sized calcified glob in his left thigh, limiting him to only nine games the following season. It alone didn't trigger the many physical hurdles Neely would have to overcome in the years ahead, but he would never again play as many as 50 games in a regular season. Somewhat amazingly, he did pump in 50 goals in only 49 games in 1993-94.
Lemieux's years with Montreal and New Jersey often led to many confrontations witih Neely, but few of them were the face-to-face battles Neely would have preferred. So frustrated one night by Lemieux's turtling in the heat of battle, Neely grabbed him by the sweater and slammed him face-first into the Garden's cornerboards. Lemieux was on all fours, his face planted directly into the Boston Globe billboard.
"I don't know if one ever gets to feel they evened the score," said Neely. "They never really allowed anyone to get back at them within the rules of the game. There was no dropping the gloves and tuning them that way. But the league allowed them to do what they did, year in and year out. One thing I've always liked about hockey is that it has been an honest man's game. If you did something you shouldn't, then you expected to pay the consequences -- but they never paid."
In Neely's prime years, the late 1980s and early '90s, streams of fans, men and women and children, made their way to Causeway Street with his No. 8 on their backs. No doubt a few "NEELY" sweaters have been salvaged from the back of the closet across New England this weekend and a Sea of Neely will swamp Causeway Street one more time tomorrow night.
Neely's longtime ties to TV-and-screen star Michael J. Fox brought some outside celebrity status to the dilapidated Boston Garden. Fox and film star Glenn Close often were spotted watching from a second-balcony luxury box, the old barn shaking at its foundation when Neely would come busting down the wing, knocking down defenders and hammering home the velvety serves of Craig Janney or Adam Oates.
"Both of them were such great passers," said Neely, who three times finished seasons with 50 goals or more. "My first time to 50 goals was with Craig, so that was special. Adam's game was a little different, because he was a righthanded center, and I was concerned he might not get me the puck. But we clicked at once. He had the best backhand pass I ever saw, these little saucers that would jump the other guy's stick and then land flat, right on your tape."
Rick Middleton spent Neely's first year in Boston, 1986-87, on a line with Neely, flipping over to the left side on a trio centered by Thomas Gradin. Middleton popped in 31 goals that season, and Neely 36. Originally selected No. 9 overall in the '83 draft by the Canucks, Neely arrived in Boston in the June 6, 1986, swap that sent Barry Pederson to the Canucks, a deal that also netted Boston Glen Wesley with a first-round pick in the '87 draft.
"He was kind of an enigma in Vancouver, I guess, because they hadn't played him," recalled Middleton. "He'd only been used as this physical player. No one knew, except maybe the scouts, that he had all this offensive talent to be brought out. And when he fought, wow, it was that old-school Terry O'Reilly thing, fighting out of emotion. I remember asking Stan Jonathan once why he always smiled when he fought. And he'd say, `Nifty, I can't fight when I'm mad.' But Cam fought out of anger. Terry got him to be more selective about when he'd fight, and when he controlled his temper, that's when the goals started coming -- and kept coming."
Middleton's last run with the Bruins was the '88 playoffs, which included the second-round victory over the Canadiens, the first time in 45 years Boston beat Montreal in the postseason. The lasting image of that series for Middleton was Neely steaming down the right side and running over a petrified Petr Svoboda, a slick but soft defenseman, en route to scoring the final goal of the series.
"You have to think of Cam as the prototypical power forward," said Middleton. "Other guys did some of what he did. Bob Nystrom could fight and check, but he wasn't the prolific goal scorer. Clark Gillies could fight with the best of 'em, but he didn't check like Cam. Cam could hit and fight and score and go around you . . . do it all.
"I'm at a loss to come up with someone who did it that well for that long. I know maybe [Brendan] Shanahan and [Keith] Tkachuk maybe approached it early in their careers, but they didn't keep the intensity like Cam did for years."
Important new role
Relaxed, with an easy laugh, Neely spends most of his working hours these days at his Neely Foundation on Winter Street, where he and his brother Scott help others in the memory of their late parents, Mike and Marlene, both of whom died of cancer during Neely's days on the Boston roster. Neely caught the wave of huge salary increases in the NHL, maxing out around $2.5 million per year at the end of his career, and presumably can afford to be selective about the various other business ventures that keep him busy. He lives in the suburbs with his wife and two children, all of whom will be on the ice tomorrow night when his No. 8 ascends.
A couple of years after his '96 retirement, Neely was feeling well enough to flirt with a comeback. The ache in his hip reminded him he had retired for all the right reasons, however, and he was quick to call it quits for good. Reminded last week that there will be no comebacks after Monday night, he smiled and said emphatically, "Good! Although . . . tell that to Mario [Lemieux]."
Pittsburgh superstar Mario Lemieux recently called it quits for the season, but plans to return next season.
For all his games and scraps, Neely looks remarkably unscarred, the most visible sign of his past a small nick high on his left cheek, where he was gouged by a stick. The teeth he lost to high sticks have been replaced, filling out a bright smile.
"One of 'em got knocked out in a game against Montreal," he recalled. "Three of us piled up -- me, Chris Chelios, and Garry Galley. I was so ticked, I chased Chelios around the ice the whole night, trying to get him. Come to find out, when I saw the replay, it was Galley's stick."
If he had any of it to do over, there would be the obvious, a Stanley Cup to cherish. Beyond that there is the sense of regret that comes with being forced to leave early because of injuries. There are the lingering aches of two knee surgeries and the cranky hip. He barely ever thinks of that ossified mess in his quad, which has shrunk considerably over the years.
"How do I feel? Well, I always tell people I feel great. And overall I do," he said. "The last couple of years, I've just felt great, about my family, my life, everything. Physically, though, I feel some pains every day. So, yeah, compared to when I had the injuries I'm doing great. Compared to how I felt when I was age 5? C'mon, I'm doing [expletive]."
The relief in all that is that there are no more planes to take, training rooms to resurrect hopes, hours to kill between games. Neely was never much for sitting around, waiting for the next opening faceoff. He wanted to play. Now. Afternoon games were best, he said, because he got up and got to it. If there is a good part to having it good and over, it's that he can parcel out the time as he pleases.
"Now, turn back the clock and tell me I can go again," mulled the meteor come to rest. "Where do I sign up?"