His mom was driving. He was just a boy. Now he’s in the Stanley Cup final, and the memories of how he got here will inspire him to be the best he can.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for her,” says the Ottawa Senators forward. “She led the way for me.
“She’d wake me up in the morning and make sure I was out running. She’d have me chase the car or do whatever she had to do to get me to be quicker and faster. Whether it was hockey or baseball, she was dedicated in helping me be the best I could be. I can’t say enough about it.”
Neil and the other players with the Senators and the Anaheim Ducks owe debts of gratitude to family members and coaches who helped them reach the top.
Bonnie Neil never got the chance to see her son skate in hockey’s ultimate series. She passed away in November 2005 at age 57.
“My mom was a motivator for me, and I had my uncle Bob for a coach when I played minor hockey,” says Neil. “They embedded a work ethic in me.
“That’s what I try to bring to the table every game. If you have a good work ethic, good things happen.”
He grew up on a farm at Flesherton, Ont., 140 kilometres northwest of Toronto, and he and his big brothers skated on frozen ponds in the winter.
“Other times we’d play in the basement and we had a fake Stanley Cup to hoist,” he recalls. “To have the opportunity now to play for the real thing is unbelievable.”
The fondest memories from boyhood often involve fun, and that is why Francois Beauchemin remembers the impact Andre Gravel had on his development. Gravel was his coach when he was 10 and playing for the Sorel Mariners.
“Every day we practised we enjoyed being at the rink and we had a lot of fun playing tournaments,” Beauchemin recalls. “I got to play a lot but it was always about having fun on the ice.
“We still keep in touch. I’m sure he’ll be watching the next couple of weeks.”
Ducks forward Corey Perry skated on a backyard rink his father flooded each winter in Peterborough, Ont.
“I was out there before school and after school until it was dark and we couldn’t see anymore,” says Perry.
Geoff Perry, an OPP officer, was Corey’s minor hockey coach, too.
“He took me to the rink early and did all kinds of stuff to help prepare me for where I am today. I give a lot of the credit to him.”
Senators forward Peter Schaeffer was also coached by his dad, Pete, at Yellow Grass, Sask., an hour’s drive south of Regina. His dad is a teacher and also supervised his phys-ed classes.
“Looking back now, I certainly appreciate all the effort him and my mom put in,” says Schaeffer. “They gave up a lot for me to be able to be where I am today.”
Ducks centre Andy McDonald had the same experience – dad as coach. Steven McDonald, an OPP officer in Strathroy, Ont., who retires Thursday, was “the person who was the most instrumental in my development in minor hockey.”
He insisted Andy take power skating lessons. Watch McDonald skate during the Stanley Cup final and see the result of those lessons.
“He wanted me to become a good all-around player who could move the puck.”
Senators forward Chris Kelly says he learned a lot in a short time from his Toronto Marlies bantam coach, Paul Dennis, who now is player development coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“He only coached me for one year but he really gave me the confidence to move forward,” says Kelly. “I think he was the main reason I got to where I am today.
“He’s a great motivator. He made you believe you could go out there and accomplish anything.”
Ducks winger Dustin Penner had a somewhat similar experience involving University of Maine recruiter Grant Standbrook.
“He was the first person that believed in me other than my parents,” says Penner. “By believing in me, he made me believe in myself.”
Penner will never forget one comment in particular that Standbrook made while visiting with his family in Winkler, Man., after scouting him playing junior hockey in Saskatoon.
“I was driving down from Winnipeg and I went through Carman and saw a ‘Home of Eddie Belfour’ sign,” Standbrook told him. “One day there’ll be a sign like that for you in Winkler.”
It sounded farfetched at the time.
“I thought at first that he was just blowing smoke up my rear end, saying all the right things. I guess he envisioned this, but I would never have at that point in my life.”
Wade Redden talks about being coached in hockey by his dad, Gord, and about having a fastball coach by the name of Dave McLean, a teacher in Lashburn, Sask., who remains a good friend to this day.
“He’s been a real strong influence on me since I was very young,” says Redden, who was a pitcher. “He was a real quiet guy.
“He always knew what buttons to push and how to handle people. He had a real positive effect on me. If times were going bad, it wasn’t a matter of him yelling at you or grabbing you by the scruff of the hair. He’d calmly do his thing and usually got you to get things right.”
Watch the way Redden plays defence. He calmly does his thing, and now we know why. Now he’s in the Stanley Cup final.
“To be where we’re at, looking back to where I first started, it’s been a long road,” says Redden. “Everyone is really excited about this challenge.
“It’s such an elusive trophy to win. There are so many guys who go through this league who don’t get a chance to win it and we’re right here so we want to give it all we’ve got to get it.”
Those who lent the helping hands all across Canada to players on both teams will be watching.