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ON HOCKEY

A smashing idea

Rugged Bruin great Neely could break down door to Hall of Fame today

ETOBICOKE, Ontario -- Cam Neely turned 40 Monday, marking his official entry into life's middle agedom, and this afternoon he could cross the threshold of immortality if, as expected, he is named as an electee to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Nearly 10 years have passed since Neely, the game's premier power forward during his time with the Bruins, had to surrender to a chronic hip condition -- in part the result of a menacing hit by Ulf Samuelsson in the 1991 playoffs. Reached by cellphone yesterday afternoon as he was about to meet with his longtime pal and agent, Jay Fee, he was reluctant to talk about what today could bring.

''I've learned long ago not to spend too much time thinking about things that are out of my control," he said, when asked if he were counting on a night of tossing and turning. ''So, not really. And to be honest, this year, there's been a little different vibe than in other years."

Yes, the vibe. It is that unspoken word, that untunable frequency that envelops the Hall this time each year. To their credit, the 18 members of the selection committee do an outstanding job of holding their thoughts and nominations in confidence, at least for the record.

But when a guy's time comes, the word gets around, destiny gains a voice, and yesterday Neely's name, along with those of Herb Brooks, Dick Duff, and Glenn Anderson, began to surface among the hockey cognoscenti who gathered here for an NHL summit on possible rule and equipment changes. There were no guarantees for any of them, but a growing belief that the ultimate honor was coming their way.

''I think people forget how long Cam actually played," said noted broadcaster and ex-goalie John Davidson, a member of the selection committee. ''They think he played just those 10 years with the Bruins, but he had three with Vancouver, too, before the trade to Boston. Four times he was a second-team All-Star, losing out to guys like Hakan Loob and Mike Bossy -- not bad. And to be the top power forward in the game for the eight best years of his career, I mean, look, if he's nominated, I'd say he's very deserving of consideration."

Former Bruins coach Mike Keenan is not a member of the selection committee. When asked about Neely's chances in the voting, he acknowledged, with some humor, that he had ''the dubious honor" of cutting him from Canada's entry in the Canada Cup shortly after Neely was dealt to Boston.

''He was just a boy then," recalled Keenan. ''And remember who we cut him for, Lemieux -- that's Mario, not Claude. Cam for the Hall of Fame? I think it would be pretty tough to keep him out of it."

Neely, who three times scored 50 or more goals in a Boston uniform, was limited to 726 games because of injury, but still rolled up 395 goals and 694 points. Had he remained healthy, he easily would have played in 1,200 games, notched 500-plus goals, and breezed to 1,000 points.

Mike Milbury, the former Bruins defenseman and head coach who is now the Islanders' general manager, was behind the dasher for some of Neely's tour in the Hub of Hockey. He also played with the likes of Rick Middleton and Terry O'Reilly, both of whom often get mentioned, at least in Boston, as potential Hall inductees. If he were a member of the committee, he would nominate all three.

''Let's put it this way," said the ever-candid Milbury, ''they'd all be voted in by the fans -- in a second. Neely and Middleton, those two guys are easy picks, as far as I'm concerned. Both were just brilliant, brilliant players, who probably didn't get the credit they deserve because they didn't play on a Cup winner. And to me, the easiest pick of all would be O'Reilly, because he was so unique. You're talking about a guy, for crying out loud, who turned an All-Star Game into a near-donnybrook. He just impacted so many games. I think you have to go by the essence of the player, not necessarily his statistics or awards."

Somewhat surprisingly, Milbury paired Dale Hunter with O'Reilly as guys with somewhat, shall we say, quirky résumés for Hall of Fame consideration.

Milbury was reminded that, during his coaching days, he vehemently criticized Hunter for a crosscheck to the head of Craig Janney when the Bruins played Hunter's Washington Capitals in the playoffs. His tirade then was classic Milbury brinkmanship, and it succeeded in firing up the Boston locker room.

Reminded of that fiery anti-Hunter speech of long ago, Milbury sheepishly scratched his head, smiled, and said, ''Ah, Janney probably deserved it."

Neely, a powerful skater who pulverized defensemen and forwards with devastating checks, also had one of the game's hardest and most feared slapshots. He also was capable of stopping short, a locomotive slamming on the brakes for an unexpected station stop, and pirouetting around the opposition. He was brute force on two blades. And when he really got his dander up, for a cheap-shot artist such as Claude Lemieux, there was no chance of persuading him to cool his jets. An everlasting image: Neely pulling a turtled Lemieux along the ice and into the corner at the old Garden, and pounding his shielded face into the Globe ad along the corner boards (the night Lemieux earned a Pulitzer for his nose for news).

Duff, a left winger, played 17 seasons for five teams, most notably the Maple Leafs, but also for the Rangers, Canadiens, Kings, and finally the Sabres. In 1,030 games, he scored 283 goals and collected 572 points. Anderson, now 44, was a key member of the Oiler dynasty, and could play all forward positions -- in part why he was able to pile up 1,099 points in 1,129 games.

Brooks, who was killed Aug. 11, 2003, when he rolled his minivan just north of Minneapolis, coached the 1980 US hockey team to its Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid, dumping the mighty CCCP squad along the way. He should be a shoo-in for the Builders category. Sixty-six years old when he died, Brooks also coached four NHL clubs after the Olympics: the North Stars, Rangers, Devils, and Penguins.

''You're meant to be here," Brooks told his charges prior to dumping Russia, one of the greatest upsets in sports history. ''This moment is yours. You're meant to be here at this time."

His time has come, and for Neely, too. The formal induction ceremony is Monday, Nov. 7.

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