Chris Neil gets mocked a lot on the internet, so I just want to start off by saying this: I love Chris Neil. For most of his career I’ve loved watching him play. I enjoyed every game where he got announced as part of the starting lineup. It always seemed more exciting when he was the one to score a goal for the Senators. And yes, I even loved his silly pump-up to the crowd after a big fight. Sure, as his career’s gone on, I’ve sometimes thought he was taking a lineup spot away from someone younger who might’ve helped the Sens down the road (though if you look at the call-ups this year, that may not be true). But for the most part, I’ve enjoyed Neil as a Senator.
Why? I think there’s a few reasons. One is that he seems to love playing the game. He’s realized how lucky he is to be playing professional hockey for this long when he’s not the fastest or the most skilled guy out there. He genuinely seems to have a blast, and you see that when you see him beaming or raising his arms after a fight. He always seems to give it his all on the ice. I think only a very small percentage of hockey players coast (someone like Erik Karlsson is just so good he makes it look effortless), but with Neil you could tell his was trying to make up for his deficiencies. Even a year ago, when he came to camp leaner and faster, you knew it was because he knew what he needed to do to help the team. Not many fourth-line guys assured of a roster spot at age 36 will bother to change their game, but he did. That shows dedication.
Probably the biggest reason I loved him is how much other teams hated him. When I did my undergrad at Waterloo, most people I knew were Maple Leafs fans. And I loved how much they hated Neil just for being himself. Only the very best players or the biggest pests (or sometimes the combination of the two, like Corey Perry or Brad Marchand) get that ability. And somehow Neil earned that title. Anything that makes Leafs fans get angry makes me happy.
Other teams didn’t like him either. A great Chris Neil moment comes from the 2006 playoffs, when he goaded Chris Dingman into fighting him, and then just turtled. Dingman got 17 minutes in penalties, leading to a seven-minute powerplay for Ottawa, in the third period of a game they were leading by three goals. The Lightning spent the rest of the game trying to get at Neil rather than trying to win. Even John Tortorella said after the game that Neil’s job was to get under players’ skin, and Dingman should know better. He didn’t criticize Neil for being cowardly. I can remember a game from two seasons ago against the Penguins where early in the game Neil said something to Evgeni Malkin, and Malkin took a retaliation roughing penalty. Getting Malkin off his game early is a great move for Ottawa. When Neil was on his game, he consistently gave Ottawa a chance to win. And the point people keep coming back to with Neil - he never got a suspension in his career. He knew how to be a pest, how to toe the line, but without ever crossing it. Guys like Raffi Torres and Matt Cooke and Steve Downie were hated because they played dirty. Neil’s refusal to play dirty probably made people hate him even more.
Playing 1000 games as an enforcer is very rare. Looking on NHL.com for players with 1000 games and more than 2000 penalty minutes brings up mostly guys who played for a long time - Chris Chelios, Scott Stevens, Brendan Shanahan, Keith Tkachuk, guys like that. Even filtering for guys with fewer points can leave guys like Luke Richardson who were just long-time defensive defencemen. There are a few tough guys these apply to: Shayne Corson, Kelly Buchberger, Lyle Odelein, Craig Berube, Donald Brashear, and Tie Domi. Definitely some memorable company.
But here’s the thing - zero of those guys played 1000 games for the same franchise. None. If you look at the list of players who have played 1000 games you notice something: the ones who stuck with one franchise are high-skill guys. Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Stan Mikita, Ken Daneyko, Henri Richard, Patrik Elias, Jean Believeau and so on. You could argue Tomas Holmstrom (1026 games for Detroit) was a grinder, but his career points-per-game is double that of Neil, and he didn’t even hit 1000 PIMs. Maybe we don’t think about this because both Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips played their first 1000 games in a Sens jersey, but accomplishing 1000 games with one franchise is extremely rare. The fact that Neil did it as an enforcer is, as far as I can tell, a first.
There are many other things to appreciate about Neil. His involvement in the community has been great. The fact that he and Caitlin were named honourary chairs of Roger’s House tells you about his commitment to charity in the area. Leadership is often overstated in the NHL, but there’s no question in my mind that having Neil on the team has helped with all of the young players coming in recently. He was vocal in saying that Phillips should’ve been the captain after Jason Spezza, but was quick to step in against anyone who tried to take liberties with Karlsson. He knows his role on the ice, with the team, and in the community, and does all to perfection.
So tonight, let’s not get into a debate about Neil’s present worth to the team. When he’s honoured on Wednesday at home, let’s not use it as a way to debate the place of fighting in the modern game. Instead, let’s honour one of the most fun players to watch in Sens history. Let’s be proud that this guy fought his way into 1000 games with the same team. Let’s cheer him on to another Gordie Howe hat trick and another raise the roof. And let’s remember the great era of the Sens he was a part of, because when he retires, it will be the closing of the final chapter of the Cup-contender Sens of the 2000s.