Drafted as the sixteenth pick in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL Draft by the Ottawa Senators, it didn’t take long for Chris Neil to settle here in Ottawa. Neil knew what it meant to live in a close knit community from growing up in the small town of Flesherton, home to roughly 700 people.
Chris’ actions both on and off the ice are crucial reasons for why he spent all fifteen years of his NHL career with the Ottawa Senators. On the ice, he’s one of the few people who would always protect his teammates, doing so as if they were his own brothers. Off the ice, Chris and his wife Caitlin, have been extremely engaged in the community, shown through their support and participation with many charitable initiatives throughout the Ottawa area.
Faces caught up with the former Ottawa Senator to discuss all things hockey. We chat about his official retirement this past season and his recent return to the Ottawa Senators organization filling an off-ice role as Alumni Ambassador for the organization alongside his former teammate, Chris Phillips.
Congratulations on your official retirement this past winter. People always say how hard it is to do it but how did it feel for you to hang the skates up?
It was a tough decision. Obviously, playing hockey right from a young age, it’s all I’ve known. I had the opportunity to play this year but for me, the longer I went without signing somewhere, the more I enjoyed spending time with my kids. That made the transition a lot easier for me.
You’re one of only two players in NHL history to put up over 1,000 games and 2,500 penalty minutes while playing an entire career for just a single franchise. How would you describe that milestone and what did this accomplishment mean to you?
Well obviously, when you first get drafted, you’re halfway there. You still have to make the team and when you’re in your first game, it’s an unbelievable experience. Then, before you know it, you’ve played a hundred games, then four hundred games and so on. I truly have been blessed to play as long as I have. Playing that many games and getting that many penalty minutes, I mean, I tried to go out and stick up for my teammates as best as I could. I always had their backs, and that’s what led to that. I didn’t like people taking advantage of my teammates. Or if I needed to get a spark going for our team, then that’s what I did. I always played for the logo on the front and not the name on the back.
Looking back, what are some of the key moments you can remember from NHL Draft day in 1998? Who was the first person you contacted after finding out that the Ottawa Senators had drafted you?
My whole family came down, all my brothers, my mom and dad. I had to wait a long time. I was a late round draft pick and I didn’t expect to make the team, they just took a chance on me. Marshall Johnson was a scout at the time and later became the GM. I remember that I went down a couple of days early and had a meeting with the Sens, with San Jose and a couple other teams as well. I just felt that my meeting with the Sens went so well. For me, I really respected what the Senators stood for and what their involvement in the community was. At that point in my career, I was excited to have the opportunity to be drafted by an NHL team and to have my childhood dream come true. It was a pretty exciting day. I still remember when my mom tripped over the cords as she walked down and she caught Glen Sather of the New York Rangers on the shoulder. I remember one other thing from that day too. Obviously, Mike Fisher was drafted in the second round, he went there really early on during the day and he waited around the whole day so that he could meet all of the draft picks. That’s just the character of guys that the Sens drafted and it’s one thing that really resonated with me. I became really good friends with Mike from that point on.
As a kid growing up in that small town of Flesherton, was there a certain person who inspired you to lace up the skates for the first time?
Well I have three older brothers, and there’s ten years between my oldest brother and I, so watching them play at high levels was a huge help to me. I used to enjoy going to the rink and watching them play while I was just playing mini-sticks or whatever. Obviously, my brother is a role model for me. There’s another guy from my hometown named Jamie Pegg, he played for the Peterborough Petes. He’s really good friends with my brother as well. Watching him, seeing how he trained and what he went through, it was great. I’d still have to say that my biggest role model is my mom. How she pushed me to get better every single day. I think there was a time when the Sens called me and told me I needed to go to Fargo, North Dakota for three weeks for a power-skating camp. I never had the opportunity to say yes or no because my mom said to Alison Vaughn, the secretary for the GM, that we all knew I could use it (laughs). So, off I went to Fargo for three weeks, it was giving up my time at a young age and that’s what you had to do.
You recently returned back to the Ottawa Senators organization but this time, it’s in an off-ice role. Tell us a little bit about what you and former teammate Chris Phillips will be doing as Alumni Ambassadors. What are you most looking forward to with this new role?
I think for me, it’s just being involved in the community. It’s a perfect fit for what my life is right now. I still have opportunities to spend time with my kids and to be able to take part in their hockey or figure skating, whatever it is that my kids are doing. Being able to still get out in the community and with all of the great charities throughout the greater Ottawa area, to be involved in that and just to give back- I enjoy doing that. I’m a pretty personable guy, I like getting out, meeting different people and talking. That’s just me, so it’s a great fit. I think for Chris and I, it’s a way for us to help the young guys coming in get more involved in the community. If you embed yourself in the community, you can stay a long, long time in one spot. That’s not why we do it either, but that definitely helps. Just don’t be scared to tie your name with a great cause, to be involved and to give back.
You and your wife, Caitlin, were named honorary co-chairs of Roger Neilson House in 2011, helping the pediatric palliative care centre at CHEO by raising money for the facility. How important has community involvement here in Ottawa become for you both?
With Roger Neilson House, we took over for Mike Fisher and I had the opportunity to play for Roger, as he was the assistant coach here. Knowing what he stood for, being able to help him out with his summer camps, going down with Mike and meeting the kids and parents, and just seeing what Roger Neilson House was all about… it didn’t take long to convince me to be involved, it really didn’t. The kids are truly remarkable and the families are remarkable as well. What they deal with on a day-to-day basis and their routine, it’s one of those things that you don’t hesitate to just drop what you’re doing and get involved with.
Looking back, it really is special to see how your style of play resonated with the team, especially in the eyes of Ottawa Senators fans. What did it mean to you to be such an important part of the Senators family by teammates, fans and management?
I’m from a small town of seven hundred people, so I knew about giving back and being involved in the community. I go home and it’s like I never left. It’s just got that small-town feel. Being able to play junior hockey in North Bay and then come to Ottawa, they’re cities but they aren’t big cities. You don’t feel like you’re lost or anything because they still have that small-town feel. I was really fortunate to be drafted by the Senators and to have that opportunity to play here for so many years. To be able to be involved in the community and give back, it’s amazing. Really, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.
When you first discussed your new role as Alumni Ambassador, what were some aspects of that job that appealed the most to you?
Well obviously, I’ve kept in touch with people around the organization. This (the Senators) is all I’ve known for so many years. I’m passionate about it, I bled a lot for them and I care about what happens to the organization and the team.
You’ve mentioned that you’re proud of the fact that you were always an underdog in terms of draft pick status in the OHL and NHL. With this in mind, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give to a young, ambitious and talented hockey player looking to try and play professional hockey for a career?
I think the biggest thing for me is to always have fun playing. It is a game. People who are fortunate enough to make the NHL and to have some great longevity in their career, it’s few and far between. I think for me, having fun is the most important thing- but make sure you don’t take it for granted. Always work hard for what you deserve. If you’re not playing as much as you’d like or if they’re talking about taking you out of the lineup, don’t take no for an answer, just prove them wrong. That’s what I’ve had to do for my whole career and to show people that a late-round draft pick can make it. It was an uphill battle for me the whole time but at the end of the day, I can say that I did it and played over one thousand games in the NHL doing it. Take pride in what you do and conduct yourself with a great demeanour.
You’ve connected with the Ottawa Senators fan base on such a high level. How would you describe the support from fans during your NHL years?
I think that when I first came in, fans in Ottawa really embraced me and I think the reason why is because they appreciated the hard work. I wasn’t a first-round draft pick who had really high expectations. They really saw how hard I worked day in and day out. I wasn’t the most skilled player but I gave it my all every single night. I think blue-collared people really appreciated the work ethic. Never take no for an answer. I really bonded well with the fans. I think they saw how I showed up and worked hard every single night. I think that once people met me and realized the type of person I am, how I was really out there doing what I do for my teammates, then they could say with certainty that I always had everyone’s back.
Let’s look at the season that the Senators had this year. What are some of the positives that you saw come out from this season and how do you think the team can use these for their own benefit moving forward?
I think the biggest thing when you have adversity is how you come out of it. I’ve been on unbelievable teams over the years and I’ve been on teams like they went through last year. Obviously not to the same degree, as we missed playoffs, but we were right there as well. I think what they’ve gone through can be used to learn from. As an ex-player watching from the outside, how you conduct yourself on the ice, how you treat your teammates, that’s stuff that you have to build on. If your goalie lets in a bad goal, go pat him on the pads. Little things like that. You look at that and how you come together, you have to hit bottom before you can excel.
There was a lot of talk about the reasons behind the lower attendance numbers this season in the Canadian Tire Centre. Obviously, there’s no simple answer for it, but it seems like the organization has made some good efforts to increase the numbers inside the building. From your perspective, do you have any thoughts or ideas on why there were certain games throughout the year where the attendance numbers were so low?
Well, you see it around the league. Obviously, for season ticket holders, coming out and buying tickets for the games, you want to see your team do well. When you’re not winning and you’re going through a hard run like this year, it’s tough for fans to come out and to be a part of it. In saying that though, I know the Ottawa Senators organization cares about the product they put on the ice. They know what happened last year. There’s a good group of core guys in the organization. There are some really good hockey players in there and good people as well. I think in saying that, it’s something that the team and the staff behind the scenes have to work hard on with respect to getting people out and doing whatever they can to get them involved in the Senators’ game-to-game operations, grabbing tickets and coming out to the games to watch. They’re committed to doing that and it comes right from the top all the way down.
If you had to wrap up your entire NHL career with the Senators in one or two sentences, how would you describe it all?
A dream come true and an unbelievable experience. I do take pride in never being suspended and in the way I played. Honestly, it’s a dream come true.