Before I really get into this thing I want to make one point absolutely clear: I do not care if anyone thinks Chris Neil doesn’t deserve to have his number retired by the Ottawa Senators. Don’t tell me. I don’t care.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the legend himself. Chris Neil played over 1000 games for the Senators, racking up over 2500 penalty minutes and 250 points. Chris Neil is an extinct species—not an endangered species—extinct. We will never see another player like him—period. In thirty years, only three players have played 1000 games for this team. I hope we see more but, even at his current pace, Brady Tkuchuk would barely crack 1400 PIM over 1000 games.
Now if you know me and how I like my hockey players then you already know that I don’t lament the passing of the enforcer era because given everything we know about traumatic brain injuries; the long term suffering of individuals outweighs the short term amusement of the fans. Keep in mind that in his career Neil did fight Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. Tragically, these enforcers didn’t live to see their 40th birthdays and most enforcers leave the NHL by age 30. The NHL and other leagues, owe it to the players to promote safety over entertainment, and the game will benefit from that tradeoff in years to come.
And to that effect, Neil was once again a rarity. Well into his 30s, Neil could still skate and compete at the NHL level and provide more than just toughness. Truly a testament to his physical conditioning and commitment, as late as 2015-16 the Senators actually had better five-on-five corsi results with Neil on the ice. We are so fortunate to have a healthy Chris Neil around to close the door on one era of Senators hockey while entering what we hope becomes a new golden age in Ottawa.
Yet as much as we in Ottawa love and embrace Neil as a quintessential ambassador for the Sens both on and off the ice, folks in several other North American cities will always despise that toothless grin. Every fanbase in the Eastern Conference (and probably a few out west) hated Neil (and probably for what they perceived as good reason). He only scored a handful of really meaningful goals, but still managed to affect the outcomes of plenty of meaningful hockey games in his own very unique way. I have here a few teams that immediately come to mind when I think of The Neil Factor but I assume every Sens fan has their own opinion on who truly loathed Neil’s antics the most. And therein lies my weekly question:
Which NHL team brought out the best (*worst) in Chris Neil?
Even if he didn’t appear in Ottawa’s lone playoff series against the Bruins, Neil had a long list of enemies in Boston. Pretty much every single Neil compilation features the hit on Johnny Boychuk because it was terrifying. It didn’t matter where you were sitting in the arena, I think everyone in Ottawa felt that hit. Neil also fought Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, and Shawn Thornton more times than I care to remember. He didn’t always get the better of the Bruins, and Ottawa lost more than a few of those matchups but win or lose, you knew Neil would get at least five minutes every time Ottawa played against Boston.
New York Rangers
The 2012 post-season looms particularly large in this one as I struggle to recall too many regular season games between the Sens and Rags but holy cow did New York ever keep Chris Neil and Matt Carkner busy with their shenanigans. Perhaps at this stage in his career Neil did more reacting than acting but either way Neiler had a major influence (including maybe the most memorable goal of his career in game two).
It’s also worth noting that though by 2017 he was a severely diminished version of his former self, he still was the one the Sens called upon to deal with Tanner Glass when the latter was being a real thorn in the team’s side.
When you play the role of enforcer and face off against the same team in four separate postseasons (Neil didn’t dress in the conference finals in 2017) you’ll end up with a fairly long list of enemies no matter what. With 62 penalty minutes over the span of those playoff series, Neil certainly did his job attempting to manage the Matt Cookes and Maxime Talbots of the world. Ottawa unfortunately often ended up with little to show for their efforts but managed to at least get under the Penguins skin once or twice.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The prior two options in particular reek of recency bias and I think over the course of the course of his entire career, Buffalo, Montreal, Philadelphia, and New Jersey all make strong cases—but let’s stop dancing around it and get to the obvious one. No matter how much we as a fanbase can’t stand Montreal, Boston, and Buffalo, it always comes down to the battle of Ontario; especially for fans over a certain age. I get viscerally uncomfortable just thinking about Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker. As much as I dismiss the need for bruisers in today’s NHL, Ottawa absolutely needed players like Neil during the Jacques Martin years. Not only did the Leafs always manage to come up with clutch goals and goaltending against Ottawa, they also managed to be huge assholes every single game. Again, it was a totally different era of hockey and every single game had catastrophic potential. I dread how much worse Ottawa would have fared in the absence of Chris Neil.