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ON HOCKEY

Moment etched in time

Hall of Fame entry awaits Neely tonight

TORONTO -- If Cam Neely's moment of glory here tonight -- his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame -- were a true Neely moment, he would come charging through the hallowed Great Hall, wipe out the front row of tuxedoed dignitaries, and smash the vault door to smithereens inside the old bank building.

Now that would be great TV. All the spicier if Ulf Samuelsson or Claude Lemieux just happened to be, you know, in the 'hood, spotted by Neely as they tried to catch a glimpse from the street.

But at age 40, with a hip that some days feels as if it predates his birth certificate by a couple of decades, it will be a subdued, dignified, gracious, and no doubt even humble Neely who takes that one last, giant stride to immortality. There is no telling when the next Bostonian will get the call to the Hall, which, for Bruins fans, makes No. 8's final bow here both special and bittersweet.

Not only was Neely a one-of-a-kind Bruin, he also could be the last to the podium here for a very, very long time. The legacy well has about run dry on Causeway Street.

What separated Neely from the rest of the NHL's rank-and-file, and ultimately led to his Hall induction, was his unique blend of power and finesse. On the same shift he could be, and often was, the heaving, smoke-belching locomotive barreling down the track, and then morph instantly into a soft-handed, keen-eyed craftsman around the net. All the more bedeviling, from a defenseman's point of view, he occasionally would dress it all up with a little pirouette at the end, sort of a power forward's pas de chat.

All of it, the power and the panache, came from the same place.

''You have some God-given ability -- or call it what you will -- and you've got to have work ethic, too," said Neely, musing over the inner ingredients that led him here today. ''I was never afraid to work, and I think that's a big part of it. The other thing, though, is that I always disliked losing more than I ever liked winning. I disliked playing poorly, more than I liked playing well."

And, without doubt, there was a dash of serendipity, too. Isn't there always? Cameron Michael Neely was 16 years old, in possession of no particular card that read, ''Go Directly to the Hockey Hall of Fame!" when his career all but hit a brick wall. Hoping to make the transition from midget hockey to top-level juniors in British Columbia, he was cut from the Victoria Cougars' training camp.

''The next day, the coach comes up to me," recalled Neely, still sounding bewildered by it all, nearly a quarter-century later, ''and he says, 'So, Cam, what are you gonna do?' And I'm thinking, 'Uh, what am I gonna do?' I couldn't believe it. Heck, I thought he was going to tell me. I mean, I had no clue. University hockey wasn't an option in the early '80s -- it just wasn't like it is today. Finally, I just said, 'Well, I guess I'll head home [outside Vancouver] and play another year of midget.' "

A few months later, Neely's midget team was in Portland, Ore., for a tournament, and he was spotted there by a couple of front-office employees of the Portland Winter Hawks. Victoria, in cutting him from camp, failed to maintain his Western Hockey League rights. By the following September, he was in Portland's training camp, won a job, and helped lead the Winter Hawks to the Memorial Cup championship the following spring. Weeks later, he was selected in the first round of the NHL draft, No. 9 overall, by the Vancouver Canucks. Less than 90 days later, he was in his first NHL camp.

Among the mementos Neely handed over here for permanent keeping at the Hall of Fame: the Memorial Cup ring he won with Portland, still shiny and in its original box.

''I'm a huge believer in fate," he said. ''Sometimes, like that, you have to ask yourself why you get steered in a direction. If I wasn't in that midget tournament in Portland, would we be here today talking about the Hall of Fame? Who knows?"

Neely was barely getting comfortable inside his brand new Canucks sweater in the autumn of 1983 when veteran winger Tiger Williams, a good portion of his 3,966 career penalty minutes already banked, made it clear to the rookie the need to work hard.

Williams, approaching his 30th birthday, zipped past Neely during a routine lap at practice.

''I thought I was skating OK and then, gee, Tiger passes me," recalled Neely. ''And I'm like, 'Well, OK, I guess I better get my act in gear,' and I open it up a bit and catch up with Tiger. Then he starts on me with, `You're bleepin' right, kid! I better bleepin' not be able to outskate you!' Here's Tiger, and I mean, how old was he, right? But, boy that message came through loud and clear -- 'Hey, kid, if you're going to play, you've got to work.' "

By his arrival in Boston the summer of 1986, Neely had heard an endless array of messages, too many in fact, from no fewer than four Canucks coaches in three years. He was sick of the coach-speak. All he wanted to do was play, apply his skills, live or die on the opportunity. The same summer the Bruins acquired Neely, they also picked up fellow Canuck Thomas Gradin, a free agent.

In hindsight, figures Neely, the initial hullabaloo over the Gradin signing helped ease his transition in Boston. At the start, more attention was paid to Gradin, the proven vet with pedigreed resume, than to Neely, the rawboned hulk who hadn't played to his potential with the Canucks. But Gradin was gone after one season, more interested in finishing his career in Europe, and Neely, the kid who couldn't cut it in Victoria, had found a comfortable fit, a home, clear across the continent.

Had it not been for the injuries, Neely's own dossier no doubt would have been much thicker than the 694 points it includes. He was forced out at least five years ahead of time, and the injuries cut out the equivalent of, say, another three seasons. Tack on the equivalent of nearly eight seasons, and maybe he's a 500-goal guy, with 1,400 points or more.

''Sure, if I have a regret, it's that I didn't get to go out on my own terms, because of the injuries," said Neely, more at peace now with how it ended, he adds, simply because of time gone by. ''But, really, I'm not a guy who regrets much. There are times I wish I had taken the time to take it all in more, savored it. But that's never been me.

''Rather than look at what I've accomplished, actually take the time and say, 'Gee, that's all right,' with my career, it was always, 'OK, that's done, what do I have to do next? How do I get better?' "

Nothing left do now. There is nothing better. The time has come for Neely to pull on the HHOF blue jacket, tug the ring smoothly over the knuckle, make the speech. It is his day to pass respectfully into a spot reserved among the sport's legends, his likeness etched in glass in perpetuity, his duplicate never to be found.

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