Cam Neely was born in British Columbia and didn’t become a dual citizen until a couple of years ago, yet it’s unquestioned that his impact on hockey in America has been far-reaching. As a result, it was no surprise to see him among the recipients of the Lester Patrick Award for his contributions to hockey in the United States.
It took the Bruins’ 1986 deal with Vancouver to get Neely to the states, and the deal was highly beneficial to a number of people for a number of reasons. The trade rescued a 20-year-old Neely from fourth-line minutes, but the man who made the trade, which sent Barry Pederson, to the Canucks for Neely and a first-round pick, notes that Neely may have helped him as much as he helped Neely.
‘If I hadn’t made the trade, I would’ve been probably an advisor to the owner a lot earlier,’ Harry Sinden said with a laugh prior to Wednesday’s award ceremony.
It was in Boston where he established himself as a one-of-a-kind player, as Sinden noted that he has never seen a 50-goal scorer (something Neely was three times in his career, once accomplishing it in 49 games) play with the edge that Neely did, though he pointed to Alexander Ovechkin as the closest thing to it. Neely said Wednesday that the trade to Boston and embracing the style of hockey he knew he could make made all the difference in making the jump from a 14-goal-scorer (his total in his final year in Vancouver) to the player he became.
“Here’s another opportunity to show another organization maybe what I didn’t get the opportunity to show Vancouver,” Neely recalled thinking at the time of the deal. “For me, it was all about playing physical. I knew how I played in junior hockey, and I was playing physical and I knew that I could score goals, but the physical part obviously is a lot easier than scoring goals. I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to go there, and when I have an opportunity to take the body, I’m going to take the body.’ I knew for the most part that I could handle myself if somebody didn’t like that, so I was prepared for what came with me playing physical.”
Jack Parker, another Lester Patrick recipient on Wednesday, spoke highly of the player he saw arrive, noting that Neely’s celebrity in Boston has helped him compile talent in recent years. The three-time NCAA championship-winning Boston University coach felt that having a player like Neely to look up to served in inspiring kids throughout New England to get into hockey. Without Neely, Parker said, the team simply wouldn’t have as many local prospects to choose from.
Now president of the Bruins and someone who inspires the current squad, the impact that Neely has made on an organization, a town, a country, and a sport, continues to be felt. But what if the trade never happened? Aside from Sinden’s quip, Boston sports and hockey in America would be far different.
“I have thought about that, and the only conclusion that I could come up with is that I probably wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did,” Neely said. “What I would have been able to accomplish, I can’t really say. It’s impossible to say, but maybe if I went to another team, something similar would have happened, but obviously coming here was the best thing at the best time for me.”