Sports feature

Chris Neil, Honouring the Legacy of a Sens Icon

In their 30th anniversary season, the Ottawa Senators continued to celebrate their past, officially retiring the number of their long-time tough guy, Chris Neil.

Neil addressed his fans with an excellent speech and turned emotional when thanking his mother, Bonnie, who died in a car accident in 2005.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my mom and dad,” Neil said, pausing to gather himself. “My mom is not here with us today, but I know she would be so proud. She pushed me to be the best that I could be. She drove me thousands of miles so I could pursue my dream. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her. I miss her and I wish she could be here.

“Back in my first year, when I would get in a fight, which happened quite a bit, I would raise my hands after the fight to get the crowd pumped up. But the real truth behind it was to let my mom know I was okay.”

Neil also thanked his father and three older brothers, who were all in attendance. He praised his wife, Caitlin, and their three children for their ongoing support.

Back in November, Neil’s family helped the Senators surprise him with the news. Neil just thought he was recording a standard promotional video.

Don Cherry was always fond of saying, “When a crusher tries to be a rusher, he’ll end up an usher.” Whether Neil was aware of the theory or not, he effectively subscribed to it and believes he played as long as he did because he fully embraced the crusher role the Senators needed.

Back in his OHL days, Neil had to make a choice about what would get him to the NHL. Some fans would be surprised to learn the right winger was a point a game player in his last two seasons with the North Bay Centennials – the club’s top scorer in that time frame. After the Sens drafted him, he looked at the Sens’ depth chart at right wing and saw the names Alfredsson, Marion Hossa and Martin Havlat.

It was immediately clear that Neil’s NHL opportunities as a scorer in Ottawa might be fairly limited.

But Neil could handle himself, even back then. He had no problems getting physical or sorting someone out, posting 446 minutes in penalties in those final two OHL seasons. When Ottawa needed someone to play the fourth line, tough guy role, Neil was ready.

That’s what he needed to do to play in the NHL, and for 16 years he did it beautifully. Neil was active from 2001 to 2017, with decent offensive numbers for a tough guy. He averaged just over 19 points per season.

But fans outside of Ottawa have spent the past couple of days debating whether a player like that deserves to have his number retired. Very few tough guys have their jerseys retired. What makes Neil the exception to the rule?

Well, we can start with longevity. Neil played 1026 regular season games and 95 more in the playoffs. That’s a hell of an NHL career for anyone, let alone a player who never took a shift off and would gladly throw his face in front of a slap shot if it would help his team win. The style of game he played was important, particularly in that era.

Neil seemed tireless and could change the tone of a game with a big timely hit or fight. He protected teammates, who all played a little bigger and stronger, confident that Neil had their back. And even though he’d often scrap with a smile on his face, the job was never easy. The role was physically brutal and frequently violent. Every new or veteran tough guy or random AHL call up would want to try and prove themselves against Neil. And more often than not, they failed.

Georges Laraque, probably the NHL heavyweight champion of his day, once referred to Neil and Riley Cote as, pound for pound, the toughest guys in the league.

Neil was part of the biggest runs of success the Senators ever had, going to all three conference finals in 2003, 2007 (also a Cup Final), and 2017. No one else can say that. No one. Not even Alfredsson or Phillips, whose banners now hang beside Neil’s.

“The 2007 run was, in my opinion, the best run out of all of them,” Neil said last year on the 15th anniversary of the Sens only Cup final appearance. “When Alfie scored that overtime goal in Buffalo in game 5 to send us to the final, the goal wasn’t even the best part. It was when we got back to the airport and there were 15,000 people at the airport waiting for us and just enough for us to drive through high fiving everyone. I’m telling you right now, there are shivers going up my back thinking about it.

“A mural of that scene should be our arena somewhere. There were enough people at the airport to fill the stadium. As we were landing, the pilot said, ‘Look out your windows, boys!’ We looked out and it was unreal. You’re on top of the world when you see something like that.”

Now throw in the intangibles of playing your entire career with one team and making Ottawa his home. Or his massive community involvement, even to this day. Or how popular he’s been with the fan base throughout his whole career and into retirement.

This isn’t a Hockey Hall of Fame discussion, which trips a lot of fans up. It’s not the same at all. This is a hockey community honouring a 16 year love affair with a man who played in all the biggest games and literally bled for this franchise again and again.

That should be good enough for anyone, and if it’s not, don’t panic. The night wasn’t meant for you. It was a night exclusively for Neil and the fans who love him.

By Steve Warne

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