It was a "pinch-me" moment for the Dallas Stars forward, right here in downtown Montreal at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth.
One day he was about to move in to an apartment in Winnipeg, figuring he was going to settle in for a season in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose. The next he was back in Dallas, playing in the NHL for the Stars again. And, now the 21-year-old left wing is in Montreal for All-Star Weekend.
"You can't really believe that you are here," Neal told NHL.com. "One day you're watching these guys on TV and now you're in the same room with them?"
Well, sort of.
Neal is not an All-Star, yet. He's in town to play Saturday night in the NHL YoungStars Game presented by Upper Deck, the third event of the 2009 Honda/NHL SuperSkills and while the game means a lot to him, just being here means a heck of a lot more.
There's a good chance Saturday night Neal and all the other rookies and sophomores here for the YoungStars Game will find themselves in the same room as the NHL All-Stars. If and when that happens, look north because you may be able to see the confidence of 20 first- or second-year players soar right through the Bell Centre's roof.
"This experience is one that you can learn a lot from," New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who is playing in his second YoungStars Game, told NHL.com. "Being in the same room and on the same ice with some of the best players in the game, all of a sudden, you feel like you belong out there."
Plenty of the YoungStars said they plan to watch and learn Saturday night. Their eyes will be focused on the little things.
How does Vinny Lecavalier tape his stick? What brand of equipment does Mike Modano use? How does Jarome Iginla prepare himself? What does the curve in Alex Kovalev's stick look like? Where does Alex Ovechkin get all his energy from?
"Growing up I always looked at what kind of stick guys were using, what kind of equipment, what they did to tape it," Neal said. "I always knew what guys would use and what hand guys were, so it's funny to be right beside them as they tape their stick now. It's an honor to be in the NHL and a dream come true to be here."
"I'm a visual learner, so you watch the way they carry themselves and how they prepare," added Vancouver forward Mason Raymond. "They did something right to get here so it's something that can go a long ways."
Raymond hopes he can gain some confidence out of this weekend because, as he told NHL.com, he sorely needs it after what he called a sub-par first half.
He's pretty much right on target with his pace from last season, when he played in 49 games and recorded 21 points. This season Raymond, who figures to play the entire season in Vancouver, has 19 points in 47 games.
Not good enough, he said. The YoungStars experience should help turn things around for him.
That's precisely what happened to Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky, who with 2 goals and 1 assist was the MVP of last year's YoungStars Game. He followed that up with 21 points in his final 31 games after registering 19 in the first 51.
"It's just being here and the whole atmosphere of sitting in the dressing room and being with all these All-Star players," Dubinsky said of what drives your confidence forward. "You are sitting with guys that you grew up watching on TV and idolizing and now you are in the same room as them. I'm not very old and it wasn't that long ago that I was on my couch with this date circled on my calendar waiting for this game to see my favorite players and also the best players in the League. It's amazing to experience."
Raymond is banking on a similar learning experience, but he actually plans to take it one step further. He wants to steal five minutes with Iginla just to pick his brain.
"You're always looking for advice from anybody, and the guys that are here are obviously doing something right to be here," Raymond said. "If I can talk to them, sure."
Atlanta Thrashers forward Bryan Little told NHL.com he wouldn't mind a meet and greet conversation with Lecavalier. They play against each other in the Southeast Division, but Little said he has never spoken to the four-time NHL All-Star.
"You have to be a sponge and take in all their little mannerisms, what they do and how they carry themselves," Boston rookie Blake Wheeler told NHL.com. "They'll teach you the best way to be a pro. That's why they are here. They are the best."
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