Today's game renders forwards powerless

Cam Neely was an unstoppable force, but today's game hasn't allowed power forwards to flourish.

Updated: January 13, 2004, 4:56 PM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

He will get the traditional honor, his number hanging from the rafters, but is a single digit enough to sum up what Boston Bruins winger Cam Neely did to the game of hockey?

When they retire Neely's No. 8 Monday night, they just might as well run up a white flag along with the banner at the FleetCenter because it is unlikely there will be another power forward to match Neely's equal skill with scalpel or hammer.

Cam Neely
Boston's Cam Neely, right, was the preeminent power forward of his day.
Today's game just doesn't permit it.

Neely was the quintessential power forward of his time. He had size, the ability to skate, hockey sense and a pair of hands that could deliver a goal or a punch with equal finality. He could dance by an opposing defensemen using his skill and mobility or barge over or around them using his size and raw strength.

There are players who can still do that in today's game, but -- just as the pure skill players' effectiveness has been greatly reduced in today's NHL -- so has the impact of the power forward.

Neely was an unstoppable force. Think back to the NHL from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, which coincided with Neely's dominant years. There was room for players to move, to allow their skill to fill that space. The game was not like today's over-coached gridlock with too many teams dedicated to destroying offensive opportunities rather than creating them.

Neely allowed his combination of power, skill and fearsome competitiveness to help him become the definition of the power forward.

The power forward is separated from the rank and file of the merely talented by the added dimension of potential violence. It is not a case of simply having size. The NHL has many big players who do not play that way.

There was always an undercurrent of menace in Neely, who at his peak was also among the game's most feared fighters. The talk in Boston this week was of a beating he hung on Scot Kleinendorst, who played eight seasons with New York Rangers, Hartford and Washington and had the most unfortunate bit of luck in that he beat Neely in a fight.

The rematch was ugly, with Neely's legendary left hand pistoning its way into Kleinendorst's face. If Neely was matched up against any of the NHL's heavyweights of his time, you probably wouldn't have given him worse odds than maybe 50-50.

In Montreal, there was talk of a goal Neely scored against the Canadiens in April of 1988. He blew past Canadiens defenseman Petr Svoboda, then skated in and beat Habs goaltender Patrick Roy to put an exclamation point on the Bruins' first playoff win over the Habs in 18 playoff series spanning 45 years.

Neely could either beat you or beat you up.

It is simply too tough for individual players to exert their singular influence on the game now. The way the game is played now reduces the chances of one of today's players having the same kind of impact Neely imparted on the game. Not that there is a shortage of candidates.

Keith Tkachuk of the St. Louis Blues has the mix of menace and skill. So do Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, Joe Thornton of the Bruins and Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks.

Perhaps any of them, playing 15 years ago, might have threatened Neely's place at the pinnacle of their position.

With today's NHL players being bigger than they were in Neely's prime years, the impact of the power forward's size has been reduced. When Neely played, Montreal's Larry Robinson was considered a towering defenseman at 6-foot-4. He was the exception.

Consider this: Every team in the NHL -- with the exception of the Carolina Hurricanes -- has had at least one defenseman in their lineup measuring 6-foot-4 or more this season. The Los Angeles Kings have had up to four.

The matchups against smaller defenders that Neely might have enjoyed on a regular basis just aren't there anymore for today's power forwards.

Neely also had the benefit of the smaller ice in the Boston Garden, the bandbox dimensions of the old barn leaving opposing defensemen with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide when Neely came flying in on the forecheck. There are no such rinks now.

For that matter, who forechecks now? The power forward's game is intimidation, and one way to intimidate is by separating an opposing defenseman from the puck and his senses. Coaches today have most of their forwards standing around in the trap. Big hits are few and far between, and the game is less exciting for it.

Coaching has also reduced the power forward's effectiveness along with all other offensive players in the game. Neely would often use the neutral zone as his staging ground for an assault on the opponents' blue line, gathering speed and becoming an unstoppable force.

Can anybody find room to move in the neutral zone now?

Perhaps the greatest compliment bestowed on Neely is whenever he got on the ice, there was the suspense of something significant about to happen.

Probably a goal.

Maybe a fight.

For sure a collision of glass-shaking proportions.

Can you say that consistently about a power forward in today's game?

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.