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Senators lifer Chris Neil hangs up skates after 1,000-game crash-and-bang NHL career

Chris Neil, the 13th-highest scorer, most penalized player and third-longest tenured Senators player in franchise history, announced his retirement Thursday after a 1,000-plus game career in Ottawa.

After a career that spanned more than 1,000 games, during which time he crashed, banged, punched and scored his way into the hearts of Ottawa Senators faithful, Chris Neil has officially announced his retirement.

“The way my makeup is, I felt like Benjamin Button, like I could have played forever,” Neil told reporters at a Thursday press conference. “The reality was that I was closer to the end than the beginning. I took in some offers from teams but it just wasn’t the right fit. I had been so spoiled playing here in Ottawa as a Senator my entire career, it just didn’t feel right. My wife and I decided once the season got going that being able to be a part of my kids’ lives, go to their practices, figure skating, take them to school, it’s a lot of stuff that a lot of people don’t realize you miss out on. (You’re) very blessed and fortunate to play in the NHL, but you sacrifice a lot from a young age and a lot of people don’t realize that.”

In some ways, Thursday’s announcement was a formality. It had been made clear in the off-season that Neil would not be retained by the Senators with his contract set to expire. As Neil noted, it gave the 38-year-old grinding winger an opportunity to continue his career elsewhere if he could find a suitor, and while there were offers — among them a professional tryout from the Montreal Canadiens — Neil chose instead to wait for a more solid offer, one that failed to materialize. But in a league that is continuing to get younger, faster and more skilled, it’s not altogether surprising that Neil was unable to find a contract.

That said, it’s fitting Neil didn’t land with another NHL club and that his career didn’t continue outside of Ottawa. Drafted by the Senators in the sixth round, 161st overall, of the 1998 draft, Neil spent every single one of his 1,026 big-league games in Ottawa, amassing 112 goals, 250 points and a whopping 2,522 penalty minutes with the franchise. He retires as the third-longest tenured Senator in franchise history, with fewer games played than only Chris Phillips and Daniel Alfredsson, the team’s 13th-highest all-time scorer and with far and away more penalty minutes than any other Senator. The abundance of #Retire25 hashtags popping up on social media also speaks to his standing as a fan favorite. Most of all, though, Neil is proud of his ability to become an unexpected standout from his draft class.

“I’ve always been an underdog,” Neil said. “I was a late-round draft pick to the OHL, late-round pick to the NHL, so I always had something to prove. I never took it for granted that I was on the team. Didn’t matter if I had a contract or not, I always showed up with something to prove, whether to a new coach, GM or an old coach that had been there for a couple years. I always had something to prove so they knew they could get the most out of me. I never took it for granted.”

During his tenure in Ottawa, which dates back to the 2001-02 campaign, a total of 15 seasons, there were few Senators players, or, truthfully, in the league, who played the same game as Neil. While no doubt a pest to play against and a tough customer who played on the edge, Neil never crossed the line, at least not in the eyes of the league. In fact, despite finishing his career in 20th place on the NHL’s all-time penalty minutes list, Neil was never suspended.

Beyond individual success, though, Neil was part of and at the center of some of the greatest accomplishments in Senators franchise history. Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion said Thursday that he believed the Senators would not have made it through the second round of the post-season in 2016-17 without Neil, who skated in two contests against the New York Rangers in a series Ottawa won in six games, and Neil was in his prime during the best run in Senators history, which saw Ottawa capture the 2007 Eastern Conference title before falling to the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup final.

“The ’07 year that we went to the Stanley Cup final was a remarkable year,” Neil said. “We had a group of guys that came together, played for one another and we played for our coach (Bryan Murray). He had everyone going on all cylinders. Didn’t matter if you played two minutes or 22 minutes, he had everyone on the same page. That’s just the way Bryan was. All those guys in that locker room would go through that wall for him.”

And as he closes this chapter of his life, though, Neil seems at peace with the decision. He said if continuing his career was as simple as showing up and playing the games, things might be different, but the “grind of the day-to-day” that goes into being prepared is one aspect of an NHL career he won’t miss. What he will miss, however, is the camaraderie with his teammates. But Neil will get at least one more chance to pull on his No. 25 Senators sweater and skate with many of those same teammates he’s shared the ice and dressing room with over the past decade-and-a-half. On Friday, on the Canada 150 Rink at Parliament Hill, Neil will be a part of the Senators Alumni Classic, which will see Team Alfredsson square off against Team Phillips.

“I don’t know what team I’m on yet, so I’m just honored to have the privilege to play with the guys. I’m looking forward to the whole weekend, it’s going to be a fun event,” Neil said, taking a short pause before adding, “If Alfie’s on the other team, I’m going to give him a little run.”

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