Cam Neely is forever a Boston icon, revered for his heart, toughness and skill. The No. 8 that hangs aloft in the TD Garden rafters is as revered a sight as the Old North Church and Fenway Park.
More than a decade after retiring, Neely's still a vital member of the Bruins, serving as a vice president and alternate governor. And he'll have a huge presence with almost everything surrounding the Bridgestone 2010 NHL Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Fenway.
Off the ice, he's beloved for the Cam Neely Foundation For Cancer Care, and all the good work it has done for cancer patients and their families in the New England region.
No, Neely didn't start his career in Boston, but he'll always be remembered for wearing the black and gold.
But you ever wonder how he would have looked in black and orange? Bruins fans might cringe at the sight, but Neely very nearly became a Philadelphia Flyer instead of a Bruin.
The Vancouver Canucks had made Neely the ninth pick of the 1983 Entry Draft, but by the end of the 1985-86 season, a level of disappointment had set in. He had dipped from 21 goals in his second season to just 14 in his third, and he was a minus-30.
The Flyers, meanwhile, had reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1985 and with a young nucleus seemed poise to repeat that feat. But in November 1985, goaltender Pelle Lindbergh was killed in a car crash, and while the team soldiered on, they were knocked out in the second round of the playoffs. The Flyers had ample size up front in the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Tim Kerr, who scored 58 goals in 1985-86, his third straight 50-goal season. They also had an emerging scorer in 6-foot, 210-pound Rick Tocchet. Adding the 6-1, 218-pound Neely had the makings of a nightmare combination for the rest of the League.
"You're looking at having two Rick Tocchets in your lineup -- that wouldn't have been too bad," Bob Clarke, the Flyers' GM at the time, told NHL.com. "Neely's a Hall of Famer and I think Tocchet will be. Dominating, physical players. But we weren't lucky that day."
Clarke offered the Canucks forwards Brian Propp and Rich Sutter, defenseman Dave Richter and a 1986 first-round draft pick for Neely, defenseman J.J. Daigneault and a 1986 first-round pick.
"We were right in it until the end," Clarke said. "Actually, Arthur Griffiths (Canucks' assistant to the chairman), who was doing the deal, had kind of agreed with us on what the deal would be."
Griffiths told Clarke the Vancouver hockey department was going to discuss the deal one last time, but that it likely was going to happen.
While Clarke waited, the Canucks made other plans.
Barry Pederson had scored 90 goals in his first two full NHL seasons (1981-83) with the Boston Bruins, and became a free agent following the 1985-86 season. The Canucks signed Pederson, but in those days, teams had to offer compensation to a team for signing its free agents, and the Canucks offered Neely. The Bruins were only too happy to accept.
Griffiths finally got back to Clarke and gave him the bad news. Clarke said he tried to convince Griffiths to pull back Neely, make the deal with the Flyers and offer Propp as compensation to the Bruins. Griffiths refused, and the Canucks sent Neely and a 1987 first-round pick to the Bruins.
"It was obviously an extremely lopsided deal," Clarke said. "You get Cam Neely and a first-round pick that turned into Glen Wesley. Barry Pederson, who was pretty much done at the time ... we had a lot better deal on the table and Arthur Griffiths took it off."
Pederson played four seasons with the Canucks, topping out at 24 goals. Neely went on to score 344 goals in 525 games in Boston. And Propp scored 143 goals in the next four-plus seasons for the Flyers before being traded -- to the Bruins, coincidentally -- during the 1989-90 season.
"It was a major deal for us, some pretty good players from our team going out there," Clarke said. "It would have helped them a lot more than Barry Pederson would have."
Neely never realized just how close he was to landing in Philadelphia. He remembered going to dinner the day of the trade to Boston and hearing a story from his agent about another team that was interested, but he didn't really believe him.
"I was out to dinner with my then agent at the time, Alan Eagleson, and with my parents, and I think he was trying to make me feel good about being traded and told me there was another team interested," Neely told NHL.com. "He was telling me this story, 'I knew that Bobby Clarke was interested in trading for you. When I heard you were traded, I called Bobby Clarke and congratulated him, and then he said no, it's Boston.'"
Neely said had he landed in Philadelphia, he wouldn't have had to change much about his game.
"Very similar styles of play, and still to this day similar styles of play," he said of the Flyers and Bruins. "My style of play would have suited Philly as much as Boston."
"(It was) that close -- in our mind anyway," Clarke said. "Not Arthur Griffiths'. I thought it was coming, but it didn't work out for us. Worked out for the Bruins."
While history could have turned out far differently, Neely is happy to be forever a Bruin.
"What would have my career been like had I never been traded to Boston?" Neely asked. "I am absolutely thrilled my 21st birthday present was a trade to Bruins."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com