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ON HOCKEY

In pantheon of Bruins greats, Neely is up there

Cam Neely won't be saying goodbye tonight when his No. 8 is retired, not in the sense of a farewell or a good riddance. After all, he long ago became one of us, an imported homeboy who found the Hub of Hockey just too great a place ever to consider packing up, moving on, going on home.

"It was a real treat to play in Boston Garden," said the favorite son of Vancouver. "To be in front of those fans all the time. It was quite an experience to be in a city like this, in a building like that, with all the tradition. Other than playing in a Canadian Original Six city, one couldn't ask for a better setup -- you know, as long as it wasn't Montreal."

Ah, that sense of Habs hatred. Neely got that. In fact, he got it to the point where Bruins fans bonded with him from the balcony, believing he was out there fighting their fight when Boston took on the Canadiens in the late-'80s and early-'90s. Sadly, like so many things in today's NHL, that rivalry has been diluted in the last 10-12 years, adding more melancholy and regret to the moment when his name and number hit the roof this evening. Neely is gone, but so, too, is an era. Will we ever get it back?

There is always some sense of departure, or goodbye, in all these ceremonies, which have been happening with far greater frequency of late on Causeway Street. For most of his 30 or so years here, it has been almost as hard for Boston boss Harry Sinden to surrender a roster number as it has been for him to fathom paying the worker B's an average $1.8 million in today's NHL dollars.

But in the last two seasons we have seen Ray Bourque's No. 77 get raised, followed by Terry O'Reilly's No. 24. Neely will be the 10th sainted Bruin, and it could be a while now before there is another addition to this august crowd. Rick Middleton's No. 16 is the most obvious, and there would be no arguing the point here. But then again, Gerry Cheevers's No. 30 remains a glaring omission, his Hall-of-Fame credentials obviously not enough to win over Sinden's sensibilities. When the Hall isn't enough to cut it, it's only fair to ask, gee, what's a guy gotta do?

Neely, strength and toughness his trademark, won't lack for company up there in the Bruins brotherhood of true grit. Eddie Shore (2) played with a mean streak as wide as the River Charles and Milt Schmidt (15), ever the gentleman when not in uniform, could make opponents cringe with just a glare. If you need any primer regarding No. 24 (O'Reilly) then you likely are reading some other story in today's sports section, or you got hopelessly lost between the Business and City & Region sections. Let's just say this: O'Reilly, 2,095 career penalty minutes. Do the math.

O'Reilly, these days an assistant coach with the Rangers, replaced head coach Butch Goring 13 games into Neely's first season with Boston. Expected in the house for tonight's ceremonies, O'Reilly was the first to tell Neely to temper his rage, which held an irony all its own. But Neely began to listen, and understood the message even more when Mike Milbury became his bench boss. Picking his spots to display his sweet science, Neely quickly became possibly the most feared goal scorer in the game, three times cracking the 50-goal plateau.

"Oh, his talent was his explosiveness, no question," said O'Reilly, reached last week on the road with the Blueshirts. "Whether it was a fight, or a rush to the net, or even the way he dished the puck, you could see this almost martial arts gathering of strength from within him, this incredible focus.

"He fought, he shot, and he checked, and it was utterly impossible to stop him."

Sitting on the ninth floor of the Fleet the other night, scouting these days for the Rangers, ex-Bruin Brad Park mused over the elements of greatness. Like O'Reilly, Park figured, the acknowledgment of Neely as a great player came from his peers.

"You know you're a good player when other teams build their game plan around you," said Park, who watched the Canadiens, when coached by Scotty Bowman, amend their forechecking game in hopes of dismantling Park's game in his days with the Rangers. "If they're talking about you in the morning skate, then you're a good player. Guys like Terry and Cam, it's the veterans telling the rookies, `You better watch out for this guy!' That's not the blackboard game plan. That's the word-of-mouth game plan, and believe me, guys listen to that."

When that No. 8 train was roaring down right wing above North Station, no one really needed any tutoring. In the end, no one could stop him, save for the ultimate conquerors of time and injury. Only 31 years old, hip and knee injuries tearing him up, Neely had to call it quits in September 1996. Reading from a prepared speech, his teary adieu just down the hall from the Bruins dressing room that day held some of the painful undertones of Lou Gehrig's farewell before a packed, echoing Yankee Stadium.

"I look at my record sometimes," Neely said last week, his sense of humor, like his entire being, far more relaxed these days, "and I see 395 goals, and I say to myself, `Geez, I couldn't have hung in for another five goals?' Heck, I only need one assist for 300. C'mon! Everyone wants a Stanley Cup, sure. But if I've got a regret, it's just that I wish I could have retired on my own terms."

Bobby Orr, his No. 4 in place in perpetuity, felt much the same way when he took his final bow in the Garden 25 years ago. Now it's Neely's night to bring it all full circle. Through the thunderous applause and cheers choked by emotion, he will hear his name and number called one last, memorable time on Causeway Street.

A number surrendered, a career remembered, but most of all, a piece of our hockey heritage placed in proper perspective.

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