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Neely makes his grand entrance

A reflective, gracious Neely joins Hall elite

TORONTO -- Passionate and poised, Cam Neely entered the Hockey Hall of Fame last night, winning over the crowd not with a recollection of his goals or other playing achievements, but with the words of wisdom handed to him by his father a quarter-century ago.

Mike Neely's boy, who eventually made his way here to join what the former Bruins star called ''hockey's greatest team," was a 15-year-old with an urge for quitting the game back home in suburban Vancouver. Father and son were driving home after a game, during Cam's first year of midgets, and one of the greatest right wings the NHL would ever know said he had enough.

'' 'My father said, 'Cam, you listen,' " recalled Neely, who 10 years ago, his body no longer up to the task, was forced out of the game he loved. '' 'You know that you tried out. You made the team. You took someone else's spot. You honor it.' "

Mike Neely told his son that quitting would be OK, but only if he saw the season through, honored his commitment to himself, his team, his coach.

Neely stayed with it. He was back the next season, and in one more season became a junior hockey sensation.

''No yelling. No screaming," said Neely, refecting on what that car ride meant to him during his briefly misguided youth. ''It was a valuable opportunity to grow up and make my own decisions."

Earlier in the day, during the traditional morning news conference when honorees received their Hall of Fame rings, Neely couldn't help but laugh when he was unable to force the shiny new keepsake over the knuckle of his ring finger.

''It's not fitting," said Neely, making repeated attempts to jam it on.

Finally, after losing the battle, Neely slipped it comfortably on his right baby finger. The game's premier power forward had himself the very first Hockey Hall of Fame pinky ring -- a bit unorthodox, but fashionable for sipping tea.

''I can't figure how that happened," said Kelly Masse, the Hall's orchestrator of induction events. ''He was here a few weeks ago, and we had it sized." Attribute it to vendor error. The Hall, said Masse, will have a new ring struck for Neely, a man who rarely likes to wear more than a wristwatch when it comes to jewelry.

The night's other inductees were late Russian star Valeri Kharlamov and, in the builders' category, Canadian amateur hockey leader Murray Costello.

Michael J. Fox, Neely's longtime pal from home in British Columbia, attended the morning news conference inside a small theater at the Hall of Fame. He was all but anonymous, sitting in the front row, until Jim Gregory, the Hall's goodwill ambassador and event MC, made note that the actor was in the house.

''Great that he's here," said Neely. ''Back in June, when it was announced that I'd be inducted, he called right away and said, ''I'm gonna be there! I'm gonna be there.' It's special that he made it." Another longtime Neely pal, actor Denis Leary, also was here for the weekend but did not attend the morning news conference.

Neely's No. 8, retired on Causeway Street in January 2004, was a common sight on Toronto Streets over the weekend. He was by far the most popular of the three inductees honored Sunday at a downtown fan gathering. One fan stood up, pledged his allegiance to Neely, and asked if he remembered receiving a FedEx package years ago, inviting him to the man's wedding.

''What?" said Neely. ''You didn't see me in the back row?"

Upon reporting to the Bruins in the summer of '86, Neely hoped to wear sweater No. 21. As a kid, he preferred No. 12, but someone else had that number when he reported to his junior team, the Portland Winter Hawks, so he opted for No. 21. He kept the number when he entered the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks, but when he reported to Boston, the equipment staff handed him No. 8. His lucky 21 was already taken.

''When No. 21 finally became available, I asked the trainers if I could make the switch," recalled Neely. ''They said they'd check. They came back a couple of days later and said, 'Sorry, Cam, Harry [Sinden] likes you in No. 8 -- you'll have to stay in No. 8.' "

Neely handed over a couple of those No. 8 Boston sweaters, one home and one road, for permanent display at the Hall. As he walked around, taking in the exhibits for the first time, he said, like virtually all visitors, a sense of awe overcame him.

''It makes you sit down and think of your career -- something I haven't done much before," said Neely. ''And not just the NHL, but even as far back as when you're a kid, and your parents are getting up at 4 in the morning to take you to practice."

Those early-morning rides, and parental words of wisdom, ended long ago for Neely. Before his playing days were done in Boston, he had lost both parents to cancer, leading him to open the charitable foundation in his name that continues to aid cancer patients and their parents.

''My greatest supporters," Neely said last night, referring to his late mother and father. ''I miss you, and I love you."

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