BOSTON – Cam Neely had a direct approach to playing hockey. Go for the goal and knock down any opponent blocking the way.
His decision to return to the sport in a management role was more roundabout. The hockey Hall of Famer needed several years to accept the reality that his body no longer could take the battering.
“I needed to get away from the game long enough where I felt like even if I was healthy I couldn’t be playing,” the Boston Bruins new president said. “It was very difficult to leave the game the way I did.”
Nine years after reaching that conclusion, Neely became a Bruins vice-president in September 2007. And on Wednesday he got a promotion, filling a position that had been vacant since Harry Sinden ended a 17-year stint as president on Aug. 9, 2006.
And now he’s that old Neely—focused, driven and hungry to succeed.
“I have been always a very determined person,” he said. “I’m pretty black and white. There’s no grey area. At least people know what they’re dealing with. … I see what I want and I go after it.”
That’s what he did when he scored 395 goals with 299 assists in 726 regular-season games during a 13-year career. In 10 years with the Bruins after being traded by the Vancouver Canucks, he had 344 goals and 246 assists in 525 games.
And there were six seasons with at least 117 penalty minutes.
“If there’s a straight line to the net, that’s what he took,” general manager Peter Chiarelli said. “Whether there’s a player he had to punch his lights out to get there (who was) in his way, he would do it.”
As an executive, “I like his fresh insight,” Chiarelli said. “He’s not afraid to pull any punches.”
In the 1991 playoffs, Neely suffered a devastating knee-to-knee hit with Pittsburgh defenceman Ulf Samuelsson. Over the next two seasons, Neely, also bothered by a thigh injury, played a total of just 22 games. But in 1993-94 he had 50 goals in 49 games. He played two more seasons, scoring 53 goals in 91 games, then retired.
In Nov. 1998, he practised with the Bruins before abandoning his comeback attempt. At the time, he never thought he’d become team president.
“I certainly did not,” Neely said. “It was a great opportunity for me to get back in the organization three years ago and I’ve enjoyed it more than I expected to.”
Neely, 45, will oversee business and hockey operations with Chiarelli continuing to make personnel decisions.
Chiarelli’s already made a big one. He knows which of two highly-touted forwards, left wing Taylor Hall or centre Tyler Seguin, he prefers in the first round of the NHL draft June 25. Boston has the second pick after Edmonton. Chiarelli and Neely said they’d he’d be happy with either player.
“If I decide that the gap between who we have No. 1 and who we have No. 2 is large enough then, potentially, I would consider a move to bridge that gap,” Chiarelli said. “Right now, that gap is very small and I can’t see it changing.”
Neely hopes the player the Bruins pick can help them win their first Stanley Cup since 1972. They were eliminated in the second round for the second straight year last month when they lost four straight games to Philadelphia after winning the first three.
“It was difficult,” Neely said. “You feel like you’ve got to find a way to win one game and we weren’t able to do that.”
Sinden was coach when the Bruins won the Cup in 1970. He also was the general manager who obtained Neely from Vancouver in 1986.
“When Cam first arrived here at training camp it didn’t take me long to see that we had a special player,” Sinden said. “It wasn’t very long before I felt the same thing about his future” after he became vice-president.
Neely said he consults with Sinden, now senior adviser to Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. But he doesn’t plan on taking up one of Sinden’s favourite hobbies.
“Fishing’s too boring for me,” Neely said. “I need a little bit more action.”