N is for Neil, as in Chris Neil, Ottawa's #25. I was recently killing time on NHL.com and decided to watch Daniel Alfredsson's 400th goal again. It gets better every time you see it: the setup, the shot, the celebration, the excitement of Karlsson, all of it is good. What the replay also shows is Chris Neil, in the corner, collecting the puck from the referee and making sure his captain has a prized souvenir.
It wasn't a remarkable act by Neil. Every team has at least one or two players like this: guys who are always aware of what a goal or point or game means for an individual on the team, guys who try to lift the players around them by doing the unasked and unheralded, guys who always put the team first. That's what has endeared Neil to many of the Ottawa faithful.
In many ways, Neil should not be a player who fit the new NHL. However, with the addition of Bryan McGrattan, Neil was asked to do more with his game than fight and in 2005-06 he delivered with 16 goals, his best total to date. Neil has compiled five season of double-digit goals and five seasons of 20+ points to go along with seven seasons of 150 PIMs or more. While not known as offensively gifted, Neil's ability to contribute offensively (albeit in a limited way), should not come as a surprise. In his last year in junior, with the OHL's North Bay Centennials, Neil recorded 26 goals and 46 assists for 72 points (which should give some of us pause when salivating over various Ottawa prospects currently paying in the CHL).
Neil plays on the borderline: his hits are hard and sometimes questionable and he's always willing to drop the gloves. His fights are often punctuated with his trademark, gapped-tooth pump up of the crowd which brings many Sens fans to their feet and riles the opposition. His aggressive style of play has led to frequent inclusion on NHL "most hated lists". It is not just opposition fans that have a negative opinion of Neil, as his style of play frequently draws criticism from some Sens fans. Like many players who rely on their physical play to keep them in the lineup, Neil occasionally takes ill-timed, reckless penalties. Many wonder about the value his fights bring to the game. Some are miffed by the ever-present sour expression and constant banter with opposition players. Others openly question if he should be playing on the powerplay, which he does from time to time. A few are still upset about the money he makes.
Admittedly, I am not Neil's biggest fan. I don't love the tough guy/agitator role in hockey. I don't like watching fights and I don't like watching Neil celebrate these victories in an attempt to pump up his teammates and the crowd. In short, I don't like watching him try to generate momentum. But I do think he can generate it. The Neil I like seems to make an appearance half a dozen times a year. This Neil is physically explosive but within the rules. He's not putting his team down a man, but rather raising their level of play. I prefer momentum to be generated with big, thundering checks, which shake the bench and the guys on the ice out of their stupor. I've lost count of how many times I've seen Neil do this. When he's having one of these games, he's often in front of the net, battling for hard real estate. In these games, he usually finds the back of the other team's net.
While Neil's reputation is based on physical play, there is another Neil: a Neil whose development is linked to his early days with the franchise and a blossoming friendship with fellow youngster Mike Fisher. They became best friends and roommates and grew into leaders together. When the team that had been so dominant for the better part of a decade lost its way and when bigger stars forced their way out of town, Neil recommitted to the team. Now veterans, Fisher and Neil wanted to remain with the team as part of Ottawa's leadership core. When Fisher was traded to kick-start the rebuild, Neil remained in part because management liked his leadership qualities. When one of Alfredsson, Phillips, or Spezza isn't in the lineup, Neil wears an "A". Just as his on-ice leadership has grown, so too has Neil's off-ice leadership. It's only fitting that when Fisher's time as honorary chair of Rogers House ended this past summer that Chris and Caitlin Neil were named in his place. It is for these reasons that Neil means so much to so many Sens fans.