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Top Shelf: From banger to boss; Cam Neely still loves Boston

Cam Neely scored 395 goals and 694 points in 726 NHL games for Vancouver and Boston from 1983-1996. (Steve Babineau/Sports Action)

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Cam Neely scored 395 goals and 694 points in 726 NHL games for Vancouver and Boston from 1983-1996. (Steve Babineau/Sports Action)

There’s one moment that, to me, best sums up Cam Neely’s transition from power forward to power suits.

It happened in the jubilant moments following a big Game 3 overtime win for the Bruins during their seven-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1 of the 2008 playoffs.

With the B’s mugging goal-scorer Marc Savard on the ice, Neely nearly sent Boston GM Peter Chiarelli out of the press box with a double high-five that packed as much wallop as any bodycheck the old Bruins right winger ever laid on an opposing defenseman.

(And to Chiarelli’s credit, after his chair went about a foot in the air, he came right back at Neely with another hand-smack as if to say, ‘Don’t worry buddy; I can take it!’)

Hard to believe a guy exuding that much enthusiasm actually wasn’t sure if he’d take to front office life when he joined the Bruins before that season as an advisor to Chiarelli.

Neely stayed in that role until this past June, when he was elevated to the role of team president.

“It’s been fantastic,” Neely said of office life in Boston. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into a number of years ago, but I’ve enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Obviously I have a huge passion for the organization and for our fan base.”

And, of course, for the sport itself. But therein lies the double-edged sword when you’re a bred-in-the-bone banger trying to morph into somebody who impacts games from high above the ice.

I spoke with Neely earlier this month as part of a cover story on the Bruins in a THN issue that will soon be popping up on newsstands and landing in mailboxes. When asked about the nature of his interaction with the players and whether he’s ever in a position to dish out pointers from his own experiences, Neely very much gave the impression of a guy who relishes the details of the game.

“I do travel on the road with them, I try to talk to them a little bit about some of the things that I went through that I see they’re going through and if I can give them some tips, great,” he said, noting he’s always conscious to stay consistent with the message being delivered by the coaches. “One of the things I like about being on the road is you spend a little bit more time with these guys than you do being home, so it gives you a chance to have some small conversations throughout the course of the year.”

Everybody I spoke to with the Bruins was excited about the prospect of bringing Nathan Horton on board from Florida, banking on the fact that a change of scenery, some added maturity and the opportunity to play with a more skilled group of forwards will help him become a more consistent offensive producer.

Another player looking to reverse his fortunes from last year is Milan Lucic, who was limited to 50 regular season games due to ankle and finger ailments and scored just nine times.

Comparisons between Neely and Lucic should always be accompanied by a deep breath or two, one step back and the recollection that Neely scored 50 goals three times in his career; requiring just 49 games to reach that mark in 1993-94.

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Just as fans need to keep the proper perspective when comparing a Hall of Famer and a young man still finding his game at age 22, Neely said Lucic – who’s about to start drawing an average salary of more than $4 million – can get the most out of his game by embracing his limits.

“If he just focuses on his own skill set – which is up and down his wing, getting pucks out, getting pucks in, playing physical, driving to the net – everything else kind of follows from that,” Neely said. “When he gets thinking about doing too much out there, that’s when he gets himself into trouble. He’s just got to remember his skill set is different than a lot of other players in the league…it’s just not as flashy as some other players, but it certainly creates some room and opportunities for himself and his linemates.

“For Milan, when he thinks about what he has to do to be successful and he does those things, he will be a successful hockey player.”

Lucic is part of a beefed-up forward crew that shouldn’t have to work too hard to vastly improve on a showing last year that saw the Bruins average the fewest goals per game in the league at 2.39. Couple that with an always-stingy game plan under coach Claude Julien and you begin to understand why Boston, in the minds of some, is right back in the mix among the Eastern Conference elite.

The Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics have combined to win six championships since 2002, but the Bruins are still in search of their first Cup since Bobby and Phil were tearin’ up the league in ’72. Neely’s Bruins lost to the eventual Cup winner four times from 1988 through 1992, dropping two final series to the Oilers and two East finals – OK, technically Wales Conference finals – to the deadly Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now, in the second act of his pro hockey career, Neely is still invigorated by chasing down the title that eluded him in Act 1.

“If I can help out, although this time in a suit as opposed to in gear, I’m all for it,” he said. “I’d love to try and help the rest of the group bring a Cup back to Boston.”

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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