Two years ago, the 5-foot-10, 183-pound left wing was playing for the Smiths Falls Jr. A Bears of the Central Canada Hockey League and was recognized as a player to watch by NHL Central Scouting for the 2015 NHL Draft. He describes himself as a two-way, hard-working forward.
But Doef's dreams of a hockey career were derailed in December 2014, when he sustained a spinal-cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down following an on-ice hit while representing Canada East at the World Under-17 Junior A Challenge.
"The thing is, don't tell Neil he can't [do something] because he'll prove you wrong," said Bobbi-Jean Doef, Neil's mother.
Doef, 19, will do something doctors thought improbable 18 months ago when he walks onstage with the aid of a walking pole before the start of the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center on Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, Sportsnet) to receive the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence.
The award, presented by NHL Central Scouting in honor of the late McGuire, is given to the candidate who best exemplifies the commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism.
"Neil's determined approach to his ongoing journey of recovery and rehabilitation truly displays many of E.J.'s inspiring characteristics, and it is befitting to recognize Neil's strength of character and positive outlook with this award," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said.
McGuire was director of NHL Central Scouting for seven years before dying of cancer in April 2011. A coach at the collegiate, junior and American Hockey League levels, an assistant for three NHL teams during 12 seasons and a scout for two teams, McGuire began serving as director of Central Scouting in 2005.
Brooke Henderson, a professional golfer on the LPGA Tour, is best friends with Doef. They have known each other since fifth grade, each having attended the Chimo Elementary School in Smiths Falls.
"I am so proud of the person he is and how he has handled this situation," Henderson told NHL.com. "You never know what the future might hold, but one thing I did know was that Neil was never going to give up. I believed in Neil that he would do everything he could to be better. He shows so much determination and courage every day. He has definitely inspired me to be better and to have faith in what the future holds.
"His story is a miracle and what he has done on this journey from just over a year ago is truly incredible."
Doef, who began playing hockey when he was 7, is hopeful he will skate again.
Doef was named CCHL rookie of the year in 2013-14, when he scored 16 goals and had 39 points in 57 games for the Smiths Falls Jr. A Bears. He was selected by Mississauga in the third round (No. 55) of the 2013 Ontario Hockey League draft and committed to Princeton University of the ECAC in January 2014. He said he hopes to begin his college career in 2017-18.
Doef had 16 goals and 45 points in 34 games to begin 2014-15 before receiving a tryout invitation to play for Canada East in the World Junior A Challenge in Kindersley, Saskatchewan. He made the team.
"It's every kid's dream from Canada to wear the Maple Leaf on your jersey, so being able to do that was extremely exciting," Doef said. "To gain that experience was an awesome opportunity."
In the first period of the tournament opener against Switzerland, Doef collided with an opponent in the offensive zone and fell awkwardly into the boards.
"I knew something wasn't right the moment it happened," Doef said. "It wasn't anything dirty; it was the kind of play that happens all the time, but unfortunately for me it didn't turn out the way we'd hoped."
The accident fractured Doef's seventh cervical vertebrae, compressing his spinal cord. He was removed from the ice on a stretcher and taken to Saskatoon City Hospital, where he had surgery and spent 10 days.
"My husband [Bruce] and I were watching the game on television with my parents and knew instantly something was wrong," Bobbi-Jean Doef said. "We received a call from Brent Garbutt [Canada East director of hockey operations] the moment Neil was on the way to the hospital, and his communication with us was ongoing for the next several hours."
Doef was flown to an Ottawa hospital, closer to home, on Dec. 24, 2014.
"I was diagnosed with a complete fracture, which meant the doctors didn't expect me to ever really walk again," Doef said.
Bobbi-Jean recalled the day the doctors in Saskatoon told them it was the worst-case scenario: Neil would never walk again.
"Neil didn't believe them for a minute," she said.
Doef continues to go to rehab twice a week in his hometown of Smiths Falls. He intends to focus his efforts there and maybe enroll in a few post-secondary educational courses in 2016-17.
He has defied the odds to the point he can now walk with the help of a pole and an electric-stimulation brace worn on his left calf. Each time Doef lifts his foot, the sensor sends a signal to the brace, which fires electric stimulation to help flex his foot to continue his step and stride.
"Neil comes from a strong family that is morally bound together, and I think with that comes a fantastic attitude in what each day holds," said Tom Renney, Hockey Canada president and chief executive officer. "I think what I recognized after meeting Neil was his character, his attitude and his terrific work ethic."
Doef used a wheelchair to take part in a 200-meter stretch of the 2015 Pan Am Games torch relay that came through Smiths Falls on July 2, 2015. Doefstrong, a fundraiser started by family and friends of the Doefs, has raised more than $250,000 to help cover the cost of Doef's rehab and the family moving to a more modern home five minutes from their former residence in Smiths Falls.
There is a Doefstrong Facebook page that has followed Neil's journey every step of the way and has details of the fundraising efforts. He has received unconditional support from his parents and his three siblings: Nathan, 26, Nicole, 24, and Natalie, 21.
"If you dream big and just try to achieve great things in life, you will get far," Doef said. "That's the message I tried to get across in my valedictorian speech. Push and challenge yourself every day."