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Neely hoists No. 8 to FleetCenter rafters

How many times, during his decade spent on Causeway Street, had he peered up at the retired numbers hanging from the Garden rafters? "I certainly looked," Cam Neely recalled. "A few times not by choice -- when I was on my rear end."

Last night, the man whose career here ended years too soon, got to stand and hoist his old number 8 up among the Shores and the Orrs and rest of the Bruins pantheon.

"To be one of 10 guys up there . . . " mused Neely, after his numeral was affixed between Phil Esposito's 7 and John Bucyk's 9. "I don't know what I could get that would match this for a personal honor."

Except maybe one last shift with the Broons, and one last shot at nemesis Ulf Samuelsson, whose nasty hit in the 1991 playoffs led to Neely's premature retirement with a chronic hip injury five years later at 31.

For a moment, after captain Joe Thornton tossed Neely his old jersey in the dressing room before last night's game with the Sabres, it seemed as if he'd have a chance to pick up the one assist he needed to reach 300. "Instead of Joe passing me my jersey," Neely said, "I would have liked to take a couple of passes from him."

At least Neely got to lace up and take a victory lap on skates to a roaring ovation from a capacity crowd of 17,565, which was treated to a video clip of Neely's greatest hits -- literally.

Here he was again slamming unfortunate rivals, many of them Canadiens, into the dasher, or whaling away at them with both fists.

Banging bodies, Neely confessed, was what he missed most. "It was nice to be able to do that legally for a few years," he said. It wasn't the banging alone that got him up among the immortals, though. It was his muscular scoring touch, his sheer skill at directing a puck into a net by whatever means available.

Only four other Bruins -- Bucyk, Esposito, Rick Middleton, and teammate Ray Bourque -- scored more goals than Neely and none scored more in the playoffs. That was why Neely loved performing in Boston, he said. Because April was when the real season began. "Coming here, having those expectations on you," he said, "was something I really craved."

When he got word, on his 21st birthday, that he'd been traded by the Canucks to Boston, Neely wasn't so sure. "He called me up and he was bummed," actor Michael J. Fox, his old Vancouver buddy, related last night. "I said, what are you, nuts? That's fantastic. The best team, the best city, the best fans. Think of the legends who've played there."

From the day Neely pulled on the black-and-gold sweater and made his first headlong dash up ice, he was a favorite of the club's blue-collar fandom, who loved his hard nose and his soft hands.

And Neely loved playing inside the raucous vertical cockpit that made the blood rise in him. "Playing in the Garden, with everybody right on top of you . . . " he said. "When the place got crankin', it was like no other place."

Neely was right in the middle of the renaissance of the late '80s, when Boston became a hockey town again.

His biggest thrill was ending Montreal's 45-year hex in the 1988 playoffs, when Neely scored two goals in the clincher. His biggest disappointment, he said, was losing two Stanley Cup finals to Edmonton.

For Neely, his comrades said, it was always about the team. "He played for the spoked-B on the front," Don Sweeney, his longtime roommate, said last night by way of Jumbotron video. "Not the name on the back."

When his battered body could take no more by 1996, Neely could barely bring himself to say goodbye. He fought back tears during his retirement announcement and choked on the words "permanent disability."

No Bruin had crammed so much production, so much passion into a decade. Anyone who'd watched him knew his number was one for the rafters. For Neely, it was enough that it was put on a shelf. "I was honored that nobody has worn the number," he said.

Last night, Neely wore it one last time for one last spin around the ice. "That was the hardest, most emotional part," he said. "I was just trying to keep it together."

And then, with fellow immortals Milt Schmidt, Bucyk, Terry O'Reilly, and Bourque looking on, Neely and his wife Paulina, son Jack, and daughter Ava raised the 8 roofward. The name on the banner read Cameron M. Neely -- his mother's maiden name next to his father's.

It was a tribute to both of them, said Neely, whose abundant charity work for cancer patients and their families is done in their memory. Mike and Marlene's pugnacious son came here 18 years ago and never left. Now, eight years after Cam Neely hung up his skates, a part of him never will. "As a Bruin," he told the crowd, "it's good to be home."

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