Power, not numbers, make Neely Hall worthy

Updated: November 4, 2005, 12:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

If ever there was a hockey player who had reason to look skyward and ask that unanswerable question -- "Why me?" -- it's Cam Neely.

Cam Neely
Steve Babineau/WireImage.comCam Neely was a clutch player, finishing with 89 points in 93 playoff games.

Why the injuries?

Why not a few more seasons?

Why not a Stanley Cup?

Why a mother taken too early by cancer at age 47?

Why a father taken a few years later at age 56 by the same disease?

Why me?

"I've got to tell you, I've never said that, ever," Neely said in an interview this week. "There's something a buddy says and I'll share a quote from him, 'Why not me?'

"There are things you can't control and you're better off not worrying about them. That's something I learned early on with the situation with my parents."

It's not surprising then, that since his premature retirement in 1996, the 40-year-old Neely has rarely worried himself over whether he would someday find himself in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is a question that in this case, finally has an answer: yes. Welcome Cam Neely to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Neely's biggest concern in the days leading up to Monday's induction ceremony has been trying to put his career in perspective and thank those that need to be thanked on such a night.

"It's very hard to sum up what everybody's meant to me," he admitted. "I've always thought about tomorrow and not yesterday."

There are two views of Neely vis--vis his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There is the long view, the one that says his 13 seasons don't reflect the body of work that most Hall of Famers possess. It is the view that reminds us that Neely's 395 goals and 694 points are well off the standard set by most Hall of Fame forwards.

Then there is the short view, the view held by those players and coaches that saw Neely up close, having played with or against him, a view that is almost universal in its appreciation for a player that set the standard for the most coveted of NHL assets, the power forward.

Neely went through, not around.

If he needed space, he didn't find it, he cleared it with a powerful shove or sweeping elbow.

When the games mattered most, he delivered more, finishing his career with 89 points in 93 playoff games, including an astounding 57 playoff goals, putting him fourth all time in goals per game in the postseason behind Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Maurice Richard.

Former Bruins GM Harry Sinden, who sent Barry Pederson to Vancouver for Neely in the summer of 1986, said he can't think of any other player in NHL history who combined the physical presence and innate goalscoring ability that Neely possessed.

"Maybe Gordie Howe comes to mind," Sinden said. "With Lemieux and Gretzky, as great players as they were, they didn't hit anyone and no one hit them."

"I'm not surprised [at his induction]," added current Bruins GM Mike O'Connell, who served as an assistant coach for the Bruins at the tail end of Neely's 13-year career. "We just didn't get to see him long enough.

"There are a lot of not-so-great players that have won the Stanley Cup. But there's only great players in the Hockey Hall of Fame."

Former coach and scout and now top NHL analyst Pierre McGuire saw Neely up close as a member of the Penguins' coaching staff during what he terms "tong wars" between Boston and Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. He said the point totals don't come close to painting the true picture of Neely's value.

"I have huge respect for him, obviously," McGuire said. "I think it's so warranted that he's going to the Hall of Fame. He's way better than tons of guys in the Hall."

"That guy was a star and a huge star and a big-time guy," McGuire said.

What Neely endured as a young player, watching from afar as his parents battled and ultimately succumbed to cancer, forged his personality as a player and that in turn forged the personality of the man who established a home for families battling cancer and a foundation that has raised almost $14 million in the Boston area in the last decade.

"It's one thing to be a superstar in your sport. It's a whole different thing when you're a better human being, a better father, a better brother," said former teammate, roommate and longtime friend Lyndon Byers. "His parents would be incredibly proud in what he's accomplished and how he's matured as the head of his family."

He was hardly a monster at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, yet when people describe his presence both on and off the ice, it is always in terms of expansiveness.

"He was a huge person. He fills the room," O'Connell said. "It's just the way he chooses to live his life. Anybody who's been around Cam Neely reaps the benefits, whether it's been his teammates or the foundation or the team or his friends."

That Neely ended up in Boston seemed preordained.

The Bruins had watched the native of Comox, British Columbia, closely during his junior days in Portland and desperately wanted to draft him. But the Canucks made him the ninth overall pick of the 1983 draft. Three years later, when the deal began to take shape for Pederson, the Bruins had their choice of a number of Canucks but demanded Neely.

When he arrived in Boston, Neely didn't know anyone and was approached by sports psychologist Max Offenberger, who knew Neely from the Western Hockey League and his short time in Vancouver. Offenberger offered to let Neely stay with him and his wife and two daughters until he got an apartment.

By the time Neely had a place to live, he'd learned that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer and Offenberger told him to stick around until he felt like being on his own.

"Three years later I moved out," Neely said with a wry laugh. "It was a godsend. Going through what I was off the ice. I can't imagine how long the nights might have been."

The relationship proved crucial to Neely's acceptance of his parents' terminal illnesses and the motivation to move forward with his career.

"He didn't know whether to stay or leave or quit hockey," Offenberger said. "I think Cam understood what his parents and family would have wanted him to do.

"Cam, overnight, became a man from a boy. Not out of choice, but because he had to," said Offenberger, who continues to work with a number of professional teams, including Tampa Bay and Ottawa. "We're so proud of Cam. Cam as a human being is a special guy, a special guy. Even his fiercest opponents in the game have the utmost respect for him."

Although he was already a handful for opponents, Neely began to play with an even greater snarl after his arrival in Boston, scoring 36 times in his first season as a Bruin, followed by 42-, 37-, 55- and 51-goal campaigns. Injuries to his thigh and knee limited Neely to just 22 games between 1991 and 1993, but he returned for the 1993-94 season and wowed Bruins fans with a gritty 50-goal performance in 49 games. Neely scored his 50th goal in just his 44th game, becoming the third fastest player to reach the feat in NHL history.

"Everyone appreciates the dipsy-doodle, inside-out move," said Byers, now a radio personality in Boston. "But Neely's style was more to run through an opponent and then go top shelf on Patrick Roy. He was the same way in the dressing room.

"He never bitched guys out. He never yelled at guys. But when he spoke, trust me, everyone listened. He made you look in the mirror."

Twice Neely led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup final in 1988 and 1990. Both times the Bruins came up short against Edmonton.

What still impresses Sinden is that Neely accomplished what he did in such a short period of time, while enduring both physical and emotional pain.

"What he went through trying to rehab himself to 100 percent was just incredible. He worked and worked and worked. You couldn't believe it," Sinden said.

By the fall of 1996, though, a recurring hip injury would ultimately force Neely from the game at age 31. Later, he said that he wished he'd enjoyed his time on the ice more. And certainly those first years of retirement were difficult as Neely struggled to accept that his body had run out of game, even though in his mind, the game was still there.

"I would be lying if I said that in the past I hadn't thought about 'what if.' But I generally shake myself out of that before I get myself too bummed," Neely said.

Although Neely had started the cancer research foundation that bears his name the year before his retirement, it turned out to be the perfect vehicle to fill the void left by the absence of hockey.

"It was extremely difficult. When you don't choose your own time to hang them up, it was a difficult time. I was still young. I still felt I had a lot of game in me. Stepping into the foundation certainly gave me something to do that I was very committed to," Neely said.

There is an almost poetic symmetry to the arc of Neely's life and career. When he began the foundation, its early successes were due to hockey fans. Now, he and brother Scott, who acts as the foundation's executive director, have ensured that Neely's legacy isn't solely that of a hockey player who happened to make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Said Byers: "It's everything that Cam is, and that's why it's so successful."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.