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Neely earned Lester Patrick Award on and off ice

by James Murphy
Cam Neely was the pre-eminent power forward of his generation, rewarded for his prowess on the ice with induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005, nine years after his injury-induced retirement.

Wednesday night, Neely will be recognized with another award, one that reaches beyond just what he did on the ice.

Neely, along with Boston University coach Jack Parker, Boston College coach Jerry York and long-time AHL President Dave Andrews, will be presented with the Lester Patrick Award at TD Garden in Boston for their contributions to hockey in the United States.

Neely, a Boston icon for his 10 season with the Bruins, always has done his best to be active in his community, as evidenced by the Cam Neely Foundation, which he created to help cancer patients and their families during treatment, among countless other initiatives.

The Lester Patrick Award is acknowledgement of the impact the transplanted Canadian has had on the Boston community since becoming a Bruin, via trade, in 1986.

"Being from Canada, and being honored about having some sort of impact for USA Hockey, is quite an honor to me," Neely said recently. "I have lived in the same area (Boston) now longer than I did in Canada and my kids are playing hockey here. I'm a big proponent of the sport, obviously, and I'd like to see continued growth of the sport in the States. You look at who has been honored with this award and it’s the Who's Who of hockey."

Neely certainly belongs on that list, for his on-ice accomplishments alone.

Despite having his career cut short by injuries, Neely scored 395 goals and 694 points in 726 regular-season games. He added another 57 goals and 89 points in 93 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

That production, coupled with the fact that Neely launched his 6-foot-1, 218-pound frame into harm's way without reservation for the good of his club, made him a hero in New England and beyond.

When Neely arrived in Boston via a trade from the Vancouver Canucks, the Comox, B.C., native was welcomed with open arms from a fan base that was bred on the "Big Bad Bruins" of the late 1960s and '70s, a team that claimed two Stanley Cups in a three-year period from 1970-72, and the "Lunch Pail" editions that followed into the early '80s.

Neely's rugged style and scoring prowess fit right into that ethos.

He quickly learned what it meant to a Bruin and to play before the rabid community that supports hockey in Boston, a lesson that seemed to live in the old Boston Garden and was reinforced in the oral tradition handed down by legends like Bobby Orr and Terry O'Reilly.

"When you come here as a relatively young man and where you have a coach like Terry O'Reilly, a coach like Mike Milbury, and Butch Goring, who was my first coach, you see Bobby Orr come in and out of the locker room, Johnny McKenzie, Derek Sanderson doing color (on TV) at the time, you see all these guys that are still here or still involved with the team in one way, shape or form, it makes you take notice about what the city is all about," Neely said. "You see what the Bruins are all about, and if you don't understand it or notice it, than your eyes aren't open."

Yet, Neely is not brash enough to suggest his eyes were fully open to what was going on around him from Day 1 in Boston. During his playing career, he spent most of his time focusing on the next game or, more simply, his next shift.

He says the full power of his impact on the Boston hockey community did not come into focus until after he retired, a time when he fully could enjoy and embrace the reverence in which he is held by the team's supporters -- and the New England hockey community as a whole.

"It's more when you are looking back," Neely said. "I was so focused on the task at hand or what’s happening with the next game. I didn't look too far ahead and I certainly learned early in my life to not look too far back.

"I have this saying, that my rear-view mirror is broken. Obviously as soon I got here in Boston, the relationship I've had with this community and our fan base has been really special."

And for Neely, the relationship with the fans is special because of what they bring to the relationship. He'll never forget the welcome he received upon arriving from the Canucks or the affection that grew exponentially throughout his career, honoring the fan base's acknowledged place as among the most passionate in the League.

"It stems from our fan base and also from the players that have played here in the past and the pride they took when wearing the jersey," Neely said. "You either get that or you don't; you understand it or you don't. A lot of it for me is in the old building where we sold out every game and the passion that the fans have was the driving force to try and play the best I could for not only my team and myself, but for them. It was important because of the support they give this organization."

Now, Neely is giving back to the community that supported him throughout his playing career.

As president of the Bruins, Neely has overseen a number of initiatives designed to make the sport stronger throughout New England. 

"I think that anything the Bruins can do as far as helping the sport and the growth of the sport, we'll certainly look at doing," he says.

As a former player, he knows the greatest gift he can deliver the Bruins faithful is a Stanley Cup -- a goal he was unable to reach during his Hall of Fame career. Boston has not won a Cup since 1972.

"All I know is what this city was like and how they reacted when we beat Montreal for the first time in 45 years in the playoffs," Neely said, recalling the atmosphere after Boston beat the hated Canadiens en route to the 1988 Stanley Cup Final. "It's going to be 50 times that and I know it will be crazy."

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