Like all sports, hockey is built on anticipation. We always are waiting for the next wow, the new best player to come along, tease our imaginations, steal our hearts, and ultimately feed us the memories that we carry to our oversized recliners, health clubs, or sports bars of choice. Nearly 18 years ago, anticipating very little, we watched Cam Neely begin to deliver all of that. Big, mean, and nasty, he played a power game that we never had seen before, some of which a few of us forgot until we saw bits of it roll past our eyes again last night in the videotaped montage of his career. On the night Neely formally said goodbye, his No. 8 retired to the Vault's rafters, it was those snippets of his fights that most entertained the sellout crowd.
"It tells you something about what fans love to see," said Neely, when it was noted in a post-event news conference that the fans were stirred more by his punching than his scoring. "That's the way I had to play to be successful, and I have to tell you, I miss that part of my life."
The great Figure 8 is obviously not alone in that pining for pugilism. Of course, it wasn't so much about the fights as it was about the power, and the underlying ferocity of Neely's spirit. Artistically, virtually all hockey fights are abject failures. It's hard enough for two trained boxers in shoes and gloves to go toe-to-toe in an enclosed ring. But Neely grappled with the best of them, and in his words, "tuned" more than his share of willing opponents.
Somewhere in the space between his knuckles, he also squeezed out 395 goals. Fairly crafty work for a fighter.
The 10 years that Neely did all that, beginning with his arrival in the Hub of Hockey in the summer of '86, the NHL was a much different place. It not only tolerated fighting, it expected it, to the point that it marketed itself around what some of its detractors charged was a goon's mentality. There was only one referee on the ice, not the two-headed monster we have in today's game. There was no such thing as tagging someone with the "17 skidoo" -- 2 minutes for instigating, 5 more for fighting, and the added 10-minute misconduct. Fighting more than had a place. It held a certain cachet, respect, even valor.
Truth is, if a 21-year-old Cam Neely arrived on FleetStreet this morning, heart beating at warp factor five, and legs thumping like Seabiscuit (not Sea Bass), he quickly would be made to reconsider his way of doing business. Neely ran over people, beat them into submission when necessary, and then enjoyed the fruits of his labors, the open acres of ice that all that muscle made for him. Without question, referees today would whistle him down for one of a dozen sorts of interference, and charge him with enough fighting violations that he might have to consider swapping that No. 8 for a series of 2-5-10 on his back.
There are still powerful players who make their way to NHL ice, and some even dream about being the next Neely. It's just that they're not allowed to do what he did, at least not for more than a shift or two before being pointed to: a) the penalty box or b) the showers. The game suffers badly from this.
Whether they realized it or not, that's a big part of why so many in the sellout crowd of 17,565 cheered so loudly when they saw Neely turning guys into bug juice along the boards again last night and "tuning" guys with right hooks and left crosses. Some of the thrilled fans were simply happy to ride again in the way-back machine. Others, newer to the game, must have thought they were being treated to some cinematic trickery. How else to explain some of the anatomical rearrangements that Neely provided, on the fly?
"I don't know if the game would allow it to take place," said Neely, pondering how a young man in 2004 would fare with his ferociousness. "I'm sad to say, if I was playing now, I would be in the penalty box a lot more. I might not be in the game very long."
Now that would have provided profound relief for fellas such as Claude Lemieux and Ulf Samuelsson back in the day. Imagine how ex-Whaler Scot Kleinendorst would dearly love to have his nose pop back into shape. Former Montreal defenseman Petr Svoboda, whose last name, many Bostonians grew to figure, was Czech for "road kill", might have hung around for another 5-7 years if he hadn't looked so many times down the barrels that were Neely's flared nostrils.
Today's game, without the fight, is actually far more of a struggle. The fear factor just isn't there, not to the point it was when Neely and other big, talented lugs, like the younger Eric Lindros, Keith Tkachuk, and Owen Nolan, still rode high in the saddle. With all the big palookas either in retirement or handcuffed by the rule book, everyone on the ice is free to hook and hold, play nasty with their sticks, and worst of all, tie the game into knots with mesmerizing defense and trapping schemes.
Neely was forced to leave the game about a year after the Devils trapped their way to their first Stanley Cup. Hard to know if that's irony, coincidence, or just dumb luck on Neely's part.
"Players generally policed themselves," recalled Neely, whose ire spikes these days when he sees the likes of, say, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk hot-dogging it after scoring a goal. "It has always been a sport where you've generally been held accountable for your actions, and not just by the other team, but by your teammates, too."
Neely went on to note that in today's game it is rare to see teams move through the neutral zone with speed, that very little happens on the wing (his prior haunt). All the gears are there, but they never seem to mesh, all the cogs chiseled off by defense, defense, defense.
"I think to a degree the fans have noticed it, too," he said. "You're not seeing the offense you used to see."
For old time's sake, we saw it again last night. Neely's highlight reel showed him flashing fancy spin-o-rama pirouettes for thrilling goals vs. the Nordiques and Senators. It showed him dropping his left shoulder and pounding his trademark low slapper past a late-to-react Patrick Roy. And along with the power, we saw the might, a succession of Neely bodychecks delivering guys to No. 1 Queer St. in Palookaville.
Perhaps most interesting of all was when the NESN camera panned the Boston bench and froze at times on the faces of Joe Thornton and Andrew Raycroft, the faces of Bruins present and future. It was impossible not to interpret a certain awe in all of their near trance-like gazes, and equally impossible not to wonder if someday, somehow, just one of them gets infected with the spirit and burning desire that churned inside the likes of Neely, and Terry O'Reilly, and Milt Schmidt.
In the meantime, we wait. We live by the hope that the best things happen when we least expect it. Proof of that is Neely, who arrived here as a baby-faced child from Vancouver, and skated away one final lap last night as the most powerful old lion ever to pull on the Black & Gold.
"The game has changed," mused the man of the hour. "It's up to others to decide if that's good or bad."