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Neely cleared a path -- right into immortality

Four minutes is the allotted time. Cam Neely, his career known best for its boundless ferocity and regrettable brevity, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame tomorrow night in Toronto. Like all inductees, he'll have to shrink his playing days into a few words, then convey them in roughly the same time it takes to serve a double minor in the penalty box.

''It's written, and I'm feeling comfortable with it," a relaxed Neely said the other day, leaning back on the sofa of his downtown office. ''A short speech is harder, I think, because you don't want it to be just a speech of thank yous -- you know, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' and done. You want it to be a little more than that. So, it might go more than four minutes, but it's in the ballpark."

For 10 seasons here in Boston (1986-96), a decade that now seems to have been played at fast-forward speed, Neely shaped a career as the game's most feared scorer, hitter, fighter. He may not have been the most prolific point-getter -- his time, after all, coincided with the heydays of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux -- but the unique concoction of his talents -- his strength, his shot, his speed, and above all, his rage -- made Neely the game's most cantankerous commodity at right wing.

Wherever Neely moved on the ice, space became available, be it because others backed off as he approached or were left chopped up in his wake.

''His talent was his explosiveness," said Terry O'Reilly, one of his early coaches here and a man who knew firsthand the benefits to be acquired through applied rage. ''Whether it was a fight, or a rush to the net, or even the way he dished the puck, you could see the almost martial arts-like gathering of strength within him -- the incredible focus."

He became known as the game's first power forward, a label affixed by then-general manager Harry Sinden. It was Sinden who orchestrated the June 1986 trade that obtained a 20-year-old Neely from Vancouver, where Neely, despite once being the Canucks' top draft pick, became somewhat of a forgotten part amid the club's endless coaching go-round. Tom Watt, Neely's fourth bench boss by his third season in Vancouver, slotted him behind Tony Tanti and Stan Smyl for ice time.

''I remember going and having conversations with him," recalled Neely. ''And he'd say, 'Listen, Cam, you're young, you're young.' He'd focus on how young I was, and I'd say, 'Yeah, but, it's my third year in the league.' "

Watching all this play out, but not privy to the conversations between player and coach, was Bart Bradley, then Boston's chief scout. Based in Vancouver, Bradley had watched and admired Neely as far back as the strapping winger's junior hockey days. What caught Bradley's eye were his combined skills of toughness and touch.

''People talk about Todd Bertuzzi being a power forward now," said Bradley. ''Bertuzzi is big, and he can more or less bully his way to pucks. But Cam just beat guys with big checks -- crushed 'em -- and then he had the hands to make plays, and the big shot, too. You just don't see that."

It was much on the strength of Bradley's recommendation, seconded by then-scouting director Gary Darling, that Sinden made the best deal of his tenure. Barry Pederson went west, and in return the Bruins obtained Neely and Vancouver's first-round pick in the '87 draft, cashed in for Glen Wesley.

''Gotta be the best trade I was ever a part of," said Bradley, making sure to credit Sinden for executing on the deal. ''O'Reilly had called it quits, and we needed that physical presence, a fighter. We were figuring Cam for maybe 25-30 goals a year, and we wanted that toughness in the lineup to replace Terry. We got the toughness, and a whole lot more goals than we figured."

In his 10 seasons wearing Black and Gold, Neely amassed 395 goals and 694 points, and three times scored 50 goals in a season. His first setup man here was Craig Janney, followed soon by Adam Oates, a pair of pivots with crafty moves and hands that dished velvety feeds. Neely indeed scored his share of power goals, delivered on booming slapshots off the wing, but the vast majority of his strikes came from low in the right circle or around the hash marks, smashed in by quick half-slaps off pinpoint passes from Janney or Oates.

Doomed by injury
Along the way, though, Neely paid a dear physical price for his toughness. Injuries mounted. The most damaging of the blows came in the '91 playoffs when Ulf Samuelsson, then a Pittsburgh back liner, smashed into Neely's right thigh, a blow that caused massive bleeding inside his quadriceps muscle. Eventually, a large bony mass formed inside the thigh and remains there to this day.

Neely struggled to return, came back for some near-magical flourishes (including 50 goals in 49 games one season), but truly was never the same player again. In September 1996, chronic pain in his left hip, due in part to the Samuelsson hit, forced him to call it quits.

''The hip kind of hit me out of left field, because it didn't come from a specific injury," said Neely, who has gained some added pain relief lately through a switch to a new anti-inflammatory drug. ''All of a sudden, bang, it just started to bother me.

''Looking back, it was a domino effect . . . all the injuries. And I'm not sure wearing a straight-leg brace for two months was the best thing. I think sometimes, if not for that, 'would it have changed things?' But I tend not to go there too much."

For the nearly 10 years he has been gone, Neely has hardly been forgotten. Prior to his retirement, he opened a charitable foundation in his name, initially aimed at helping families cope with the lodging burdens that come with cancer treatments. He lost both his mother, age 47, to the disease in 1987, and his father, age 56, in 1993. Just days ago, the foundation kicked off its latest initiative, committing $5 million for the construction of a brain tumor center at the Floating Hospital. In 12 years, said Neely, his charity has raised nearly $14 million.

His latest venture has Neely in a second downtown Boston office, overseeing operations at Cornerstone BankCard, a credit card processing venture aimed at cutting handling fees for merchants. There is also a tie-in, said Neely, that designates donations to his foundation.

''This is what I see myself doing now for a number of years," he said. ''It's great, too, because I can still walk to the [foundation] office [on Winter Street]."

Other than that occasional stroll, his recreation load is on the light side. He said he tries to maintain a workout routine on a stationary bike, but admits he has grown tired of pedaling to nowhere. The hip doesn't afford him a regular return to skating, but he's toying with the idea of having a backyard rink, complete with refrigeration system, built at his home in the western suburbs.

''I'd like to play something to get in condition," said Neely, sounding like millions of other North American 40-year-olds, ''as opposed to, you know, that bike nonsense."

Fighting back tears
In his playing days, there were no obstacles for Neely. If there were, he dealt with them quickly, by whizzing by them on skates, or pounding them into the sideboards, or worse. When his No. 8 Bruins sweater was retired to the rafters in January 2004, the sellout crowd on Causeway Street delighted in the video clips that showed Neely taking justice into his own hands.

He was so much more than a fighter, but the Boston crowd, which filled the stands decades before fighting became politically incorrect, loved Neely's punches with more fervor than they appreciated his points.

''I liked it when I won," said an animated Neely, asked if he shared the same enthusiasm. ''I found that any time I fought out of the feeling of, 'I should fight,' you know, the obligation, I did poorly.

''Any time I fought when I was really mad, I did much better. That's why I really gained appreciation for guys like Lyndon Byers and Jay [Miller] -- they had to fight, and did well, even when they weren't mad. That's tough to do."

One struggle awaits tomorrow night, and Neely knows it, has tried to prepare for it. He will be called to the podium inside the hallowed Great Hall, with wife and children and extended family within reach, and he'll have to say his thank yous. It will be his time to say what all the years and thrills and disappointment meant, what he wanted to be, and what he became.

A story he plans to tell, said Neely, involves a life lesson he learned from his father.

''I thought I was going to be more emotional that night my number was retired, but I was OK there," said Neely. ''This time, I don't know, it could be tough."

Opposing forwards and defenseman could rarely stop him. Perhaps tomorrow, his own words will slow him down a little. We'll see how he handles it: Neely, double minor, four minutes from the heart.

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