Remodeling and Adjusting Keeps Neil Rolling Along
Nobody could have seen this coming.
Chris Neil as Ottawa Senator franchise leader in penalty minutes? Sure.
But Chris Neil as the longest serving active Senator? Not on your life.
Except there he was Saturday afternoon – as the Sens faced the Kings in Los Angeles – tugging on the Ottawa jersey for the 1,000th time during the regular season. With Chris Phillips and his 1,179 games now in retirement, Neil became the franchise’s active leader in games played.
“I never really thought about it when I started (in 2001-02), but before you know it you’re at 20 games then 100 and so on,” Neil said.
“A lot of (the longevity) is if you have people who believe in you and give you the opportunity. You have to adapt too. My last year in junior I had 72 points (with North Bay) and was more of an offensive (player) and scorer. When I got here and looked at the right side of the Senators I knew I wasn’t going to outscore Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa or Martin Havlat. I had to adapt and change my role,” he said.
During his first two seasons of pro in Grand Rapids (IHL), the Flesherton, Ont. native did just that and piled up 655 penalty minutes.
Mission accomplished and adaptation completed, Neil grabbed the notice of the Senators brass, elevating the winger to the big team.
He never saw Grand Rapids again, and outside of a few games in Binghamton during the lock-out year of 2004-05, Neil was a fourth-line fixture with the NHL club.
In his first season, he collected 231 penalty minutes for Ottawa while laying down the foundation as the team’s chief enforcer.
As for what does he remember about that very first NHL game in that very first NHL year?
“Umm, not touching the puck,” he cracked.
But to his credit, Neil became a very serviceable player and responsible checker over the years.
Unlike plenty who wear, or wore, the enforcer mantle, the now-37-year-old has kept up with change at the NHL level. Single-talent fighters who relied on their fists alone have pretty much been eliminated from the game.
“I’ve never really just been a one-dimensional player and I think that’s really helped me keep my career going. Once the game started changing I started changing, working a lot with the strength and conditioning coach and I dropped 15 pounds. That helped me get quicker.”
So if we’re keeping score, that’s two adjustments. From OHL point producer, to IHL and NHL frequent fighter then to slimmed down NHL forechecking specialist.
Revisions also played a significant role with the team itself during his tenure. With Ottawa falling well out of the playoff chase in 2010-11, Neil watched reluctantly as friend after friend was shipped out.
“It was tough at times, especially when you see guys like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly moved out, it was a real transition time for the team. For me, I didn’t know at the time that I’d be going with guys like that. At the trade deadline you hear a lot of things, rumours.”
Anxiety goes with the job.
Whether it’s worrying you might be playing in hockey hinterland Phoenix following the trade deadline or knowing that on any given night, you’ll be fighting the other team’s enforcer.
“It’s a job in the end and when you’re skating around and seeing all the fans in the stands that paid good money to see you play. You have to perform. I remember (former Senator) Curtis Leschyshyn telling me it’s the toughest role in the game. I know in your pre-game nap you’d be thinking about the guy you’d be fighting that night – Tie Domi or Colton Orr – and you wake up in a sweat. But you still get to the rink and focus.”
Ottawa Life: Best friend in hockey?
Chris Neil: Have to be Mike Fisher. He’s just been a true friend through everything.
Most talented player you have either played with, or against?
I still think Alex Ovechkin’s one of the most dynamic players in the game. Then you watch a guy like Daniel Alfredsson and the things he can do and he’s unbelievable.
The most annoying player you’ve played against?
Matt Cooke was probably one of the most annoying, and then there’s Steve Ott, but I’d have to name Matt Cooke.
Toughest fighter you faced?
I get asked this a lot. They’re all tough and I have tremendous respect for any of these guys who drop the gloves. It’s not an easy job.
Why did you pick sweater No. 25?
When you first go to camp, you want something under No. 30 or you’re likely not there when the season starts (laughs).
The Tragically Hip.
Favourite TV show?