The power forward.
Look the word up in the professional sports dictionary and there’s only one definition: Cam Neely.
“The ultimate power forward,” emphasizes former Bruins coach (from 1974-75 to 1978-79) Don Cherry, perhaps one of Cam Neely’s biggest fans. “He had everything going for him. He was big. He was tough. He controlled them, a 50-goal scorer, hit a ton. There’s nothing he couldn’t do.”
Neely admits he was more of a finesse player when he was younger, but when his body grew bigger with adolescence, “I couldn’t go around people like I used to, so I thought about going through them.”
But even the best description pales in comparison to old game footage. He had to really be seen to be appreciated. There was no one like him. No one.
See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DodJan46E5M for the ultimate Cam Neely experience.
For 13 seasons (three with Vancouver and 10 with Boston), from 1983-84 to 1995-96, Neely scored 395 goals, 299 assists for 694 career points, plus 1,241 penalty minutes in 726 games (57-32-89, 168 PIM in 93 playoff games). He epitomized the meaning of the big, bad Bruin.
Kelly Kisio (former Red Wing, Ranger, Flame, and Shark) played opposite Neely. “In Boston, in that little building, he was tough playing against. You were hoping that night that the coach didn’t match you up against his line.”
Flames head coach Jim Playfair, who won a Memorial Cup with Neely in Portland of the Western Hockey League in 1983, said that while hitting came naturally to him, fighting didn’t. “He had to dig down way down deep to be a fighter.” That said, Neely was very convincing. Just check out old video footage of his duel with Rick Tocchet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QM02LYmk-7Q&mode=related&search).
Interesting enough, the 1986-87 Hockey Scouting Report (Michael A. Berger with John Davidson and Jiggs McDonald, published by Summerhill Press in Toronto, 1986 – the year Neely joined the Bruins) reports that the right wing Neely didn’t handle the puck as well as he skated, particularly in heavy traffic areas. He was a defensive liability, wouldn’t score many goals, and might not even win all of his fights. But it did say he didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit,” was a strong skater with balance and speed, difficult to knock down because of his strength, and impossible to intimidate. Neely scored 36 goals and 72 points that very season. The following four seasons, he respectively scored 42, 37, 55, and 51 goals. His first 50 came in just 44 games, and he became the Bruins all-time playoff goal scorer.
Why did the trade to Boston reignite his career? Neely admits that while his style may have better suited the Adams Division and the small arenas of Boston and Buffalo, “They put me with some of the top players on the team and gave me an opportunity to see what I could do.” That didn’t happen in Vancouver. Thus, he grew more confident and could play more physical.
But has there ever really been another Cam Neely-type player?
Kelly Kisio doesn’t think so, even though former NHL C Mark Messier might be close. Hockey scribe and broadcasting legend Stan Fischler thinks perhaps Carolina C Eric Staal or Rangers LW Brendan Shanahan. Former Vancouver teammate Dave Lowry says Calgary RW Jarome Iginla would probably be the closest.
“I don’t think there is one player who has all of the packages he had,” adds Columbus head coach Ken Hitchcock. “You see the Heatleys or Hossas or you see Ovechkin or Kovalev – people who could score like Cam, but I don’t think there is anybody that really has that package.”
Minnesota head coach and former Canadien adversary Jacques Lemaire observes, “You look back; you had a lot of good guys. We (Habs) had a couple good guys. But maybe what was the difference in this guy was he was big. He could fight. He was tougher than the other guys.”
Hitchcock and Cherry compared Neely to Gordie Howe, but if there is one player in the league right now that fits the closest, it’s Jarome Iginla. He’s gritty, can’t be pushed off his feet, finds the back of the net easily, and is perhaps one of the best fighters in the league.
Iginla had entered the league as Neely was leaving. Does he think he compares? “Personally, I don’t know if I’d compare. He’s a pretty big guy. He was extremely tough, was in a lot of fights, more fights than I get into.”
Neely, however, says the rules may have a bearing on why no one has followed his footsteps. “They’re calling so many penalties and a lot of penalties that weren’t penalties in the era that I played.”
Most believe Cam Neely could have the same impact in today’s NHL. Sadly, a bout of injuries forced him to leave the game. Most blame the start of them with the open ice knee on knee hit he received from Ulf Samuelsson in game three of the 1991 conference final between the Bruins and the Penguins. It’s an image few of us can ever forget. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pd8cDxL_5IE)
“It always breaks my heart when I see Ulf Samuelson back of the Phoenix bench,” adds Cherry. “It makes my blood boil. He got the cheap shot of cheap shots to start him on the way with his injuries.”
Which reminds Cherry of his favorite Neely moment. “When he grabbed Claude Lemieux and when he grabbed Ulf Samuelsson, to see them both turtle. I know I should be thinking of his beautiful goals. But I think of both those guys turtling like cowards once he grabbed a hold of them.”