|Senators forward Chris Neil has willed himself into being an everyday contributor to the team in a career that has nearly hit 600 games (Jana Chytilova./Freestyle Photgraphy/OSHC).
Even at the lowest levels of junior hockey, Chris Neil
heard the doubters trying to deny him his dream.
But then, as always, Neil just did what comes naturally — he stood his ground and kept on battling.
“I never quit, that’s the bottom line,” said the 30-year-old native of Flesherton, Ont. “I got cut from the Junior C Mount Forest Patriots back home. I was 15 at the time and I was young. But still, I never took no for an answer. I was always told to take a different road in your life than (toward) the NHL.
“The biggest thing is, I just kept going for it and had the support of my family … there’s a spot in the NHL for everyone if you want it bad enough.”
Now here he is, nearly 600 games into a National Hockey League career that has reached its eighth season, with a fresh new contract pretty much guaranteeing the ride will last three more years beyond this one. But Neil hasn’t forgotten the often-hard road he took to get the security he now enjoys in a Senators uniform.
“It’s been like that my whole life,” said Neil, a sixth-round pick (161st overall) by the Senators in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. “They say you’re halfway there, just getting drafted. But you’ve got to get a contract, you’ve got to sign, then you’ve got to go down and play in the minors. So it’s a long road but I was fortunate I got up (to the NHL) pretty quick. I played two years in the minors and got up here in my third year and that was exciting for me.”
When Neil made the jump from the Ontario Hockey League’s North Bay Centennials to his pro hockey debut with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the International Hockey League — then the Senators’ top affiliate — in 1999, he knew it was a necessary step in his development.
"I never took no for an answer. I was always told to take a different road in your life than (toward) the NHL. The biggest thing is, I just kept going for it and had the support of my family … there’s a spot in the NHL for everyone if you want it bad enough." - Chris Neil
“The thing with the IHL, I was down there at a young age and I was in with a good group of guys,” said Neil. “It was fun down there. You just try to be a better player all-around and work on different aspects of your game. I was basically developing and getting stronger and more physical … when you come from junior, you go from playing with boys to playing with men, so it’s a big step. It was the best thing for me to go down there.”
Not that he wanted his stay to last any longer than necessary. With his NHL dream that close, Neil figured out quickly the straightest path to the big time.
“I knew Ottawa wanted some more toughness in the lineup,” he said. “I got a lot of points in junior (72, including 26 goals, in his final season in North Bay) and played on the top two lines. So it’s definitely a different role for me now than it was back then.
“I still remember one of our scouts at the time, Trevor Timmins, pulled me aside and said ‘I want you to go down and be physical down there and play tough … if you have to fight you have to fight.’ So that’s what I did. I fought and I fought and I played hard. It paid off and it got me up here quicker than if I tried to make it as a goal scorer.”
Rest assured, he’ll never take what he enjoys today for granted.
“I’m not saying the minors is a bad spot to play,” he said. “But you appreciate (the NHL) that much more after riding the bus.”