It’s a special season of celebration for the Ottawa Senators. The franchise is celebrating their 30th anniversary; Daniel Alfredsson is going into the Hockey Hall of Fame; and tough guy Chris Neil will have his number 25 jersey retired.
Neil’s number will be raised to the rafters in a pre-game ceremony February 17. It will hang forever beside Daniel Alfredsson’s number 11, Chris Phillips’ number 4 and Frank Finnigan’s number 8.
Don Cherry was always fond of saying, “When a crusher tries to be a rusher, he’ll end up as an usher.” Neil lived that motto 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 were, shall we say, limited.
But Neil could also handle himself, even back then. He had no problems getting physical or dropping the gloves, posting 446 minutes in penalties in those final two OHL seasons. Ottawa needed someone to play the fourth line tough guy role and he fully accepted that.
That’s what he needed to do to play in the NHL, and for 16 years he did it beautifully. Neil played 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 (and even some within) 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 game he played wasn’t highly-skilled, but it 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. More often than not, they didn’t.
Georges Laraque, probably the heavyweight champ 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 will hang beside Neil’s.
Now throw in the intangibles of playing your entire career with one team. Or his massive community involvement, even to this day. Or how popular he was with the fan base throughout his career.
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.
By Steve Warne