The Senators practiced in front of a sea of white today.
The seats were covered with 20,000 commemorative towels in preparation for the celebration taking place at the Canadian Tire Centre in mere hours.
A total of 112 goals, 136 assists, 248 points, nearly 2,500 penalty minutes and 1000 games. That’s what Chris Neil will bring with him when he steps on the ice tonight, as a team, an organization, a league and a city commemorate his many achievements in a pre-game ceremony.
Neil stood in front of one of the biggest scrums of the season today after the morning skate. His sticks and plaque on his locker both read “1000 games” and it was set to be an extremely rare 7 p.m. weekday start in order to get 60-plus minutes in the books by around 10 p.m. with the pre-game festivities looming.
“I won’t know until after it’s done,” said Neil on whether or not he would be able to keep his emotions in check. “Obviously lots of friends and family down for this game, as well. So I think, for me, it’s just focus on playing, doing the game I love to do and just have fun with it. A lot of people tell me, talking to Alfie and Philly, just go out and have fun with it. That’s all I can do.”
Though he’s likely fought half of them and definitely laid a couple thunderous hits on all of them, players around the league have an immense respect for Neil. A lot has to be said about a man who plays the style that Neil does and has never once been suspended or fined during a 15-year career.
“It’s overwhelming, really,” Neil admitted. “Guys from other teams around the league, ex-players that I played against, some of the tweets and stuff, it’s humbling. It really is. All the nice, kind words and thoughts, it goes a long way.”
Neil’s accomplishments are exceptionally noteworthy for any player who realizes the privilege of playing in the NHL. But it’s even more significant because of how he’s made it this far.
He’ll will be the first one to tell you: he was never a star, a scorer or a flashy player in any sense. This was all drive, passion and work ethic.
“I’ve seen the tweets from (Darcy) Tucker and (Tie) Domi, so that was pretty neat,” Neil acknowledged. “You battle against those guys over the years and they’re fierce competitors, as well. They don’t back down, they show up and work. For me, I think why I played for so long, I showed up every day, tried to work my hardest and do my best out there, and I think people appreciate that.”
With the San Jose Sharks in town, the Senators will look to sweep the season series and end their two-game skid. The pre-game ceremony will be all about the popular veteran winger, but once it’s over and the puck is dropped, there’s no doubt that Neil won’t hesitate to get his hands dirty. He fought in his 1000th game in Los Angeles and maybe he’ll look to seal the celebration with a fight for old time’s sake.
But don’t count out some heroics from the 37-year-old. This arena has a habit of hosting some rather memorable milestones from the city’s beloved long-time players. Remember Daniel Alfredsson scoring his 400th goal in overtime against the Calgary Flames in 2011? How about Chris Phillips notching two goals in his 1000th game against the Nashville Predators in 2012?
A Gordie Howe hat trick feels like the right way to cap off the night. Neil accomplished the same feat exactly 100 games ago against the New Jersey Devils at home last year. Maybe he’s got one more in him.