The 2007 Memorial Cup tournament wrapped up last weekend in Vancouver, with the host Vancouver Giants skating their first Cup in franchise history. Also taking part in this year's tournament were the champions from the three major junior leagues in Canada: the Medicine Hat Tigers (Western Hockey League), the Lewiston MAINEiacs (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) and the Plymouth Whalers (Ontario Hockey League), who were led by Dallas Stars prospect James Neal.
Plymouth fell to Vancouver in the Memorial Cup's semifinals, but reaching the tournament alone was a fitting end to what was a highly-decorated 2006-07 season for the 20-year-old Neal.
Dallas' second-round selection (No. 33) overall in the 2005 Entry Draft, Neal started his year by signing a three-year contract with the Stars on October 20, 2006. The 6-3, 205-pound left wing was then named to the OHL's All-Star First Team, was honored as Best Checker by the OHL's Western Conference coaches and skated in the 2007 Bell OHL All-Star Classic and the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge.
"It was just an awesome year and it got started with what I felt was a really good training camp in Dallas," said Neal. "I think getting my contract with the Stars done right away let me focus on what I had to do this year. All I had to do was play hockey and it was an all-around good season. I had some great experiences and I feel like I kept my development going down the right path."
The native of Whitby, Ontario, was a member of Team Canada's gold medal-winning club at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Sweden, and he counts that experience among the most memorable in his young hockey career.
"Being able to put on a Team Canada jersey at the World Juniors was a big honor, and topping that off with a gold medal was an amazing experience," said Neal. "It was definitely a dream come true to come home with a gold medal and make Canada proud."
Neal's string of success continued as he netted the overtime game-winning goal in Game Six of the OHL Championship Series at Sudbury to clinch the league crown for Plymouth and send the club to the Memorial Cup tournament.
"It was just unbelievable since you always dream about scoring those big overtime goals," said Neal. "I got a good pass from my linemate, Evan Brophey, and it was something special that I won't forget. It was really special to win an OHL championship and things just seemed to keep getting better."
In 20 postseason games for the Whalers, Neal led the club in points (25) and goals (13), and was second in power play goals (5) and assists (12). He became an absolute focal point for opponents in the season-ending Memorial Cup tournament, netting five goals in five games before his Whalers fell to the eventual champion Giants.
"He's been arguably the best player in the Memorial Cup so far, and we must shut him down," Scott Bonner, the Vancouver Giants' general manager, said of Neal to the Vancouver Province before his club played Plymouth in the semifinals. "We need to play very disciplined with him and put forward a solid team effort."
James wasn't the only Neal to make a name for himself in the Ontario Hockey League the past two seasons, as his younger brother, Michael, 18, has become a key contributor on the Belleville Bulls. Michael's first OHL goal came against his brother's Plymouth club at the start of the 2005-06 season, and he is now ranked 153rd among North American skaters by the NHL Central Scouting Service for this month's NHL Entry Draft.
"I definitely circled the games against Belleville on the calendar, it was fun to play against him," said Neal, whose youngest brother, Peter, 16, was recently selected in the OHL Draft by Plymouth. "Michael is a power forward like me and he had a good year, so he is excited about his NHL Draft coming up."
In addition to his sterling run of honors and achievements this season, Neal was Plymouth's Playoff MVP in 2005-06 and earned the Whalers' Rookie of the Year honors in 2004-05. He won a silver medal with Team Canada at the 2005 World Under-18 Championships in the Czech Republic, and took part in the 2005 Canadian Hockey League's Top Prospects game.
"James is a quality prospect who had an outstanding season and boasts a lot of outstanding qualities, on and off the ice," said Les Jackson, an assistant general manager with the Dallas Stars. "He is an extremely hard worker and has shown at both the junior and international levels that he has a lot of ability at both ends of the ice. He was one of the top players in the OHL all year and then he really stepped it up in the Memorial Cup, and he is definitely on track to become an excellent pro in the near future."
Neal's professional career is expected to begin with the Iowa Stars next season, but he isn't willing to limit his ceiling to the American Hockey League just yet.
"I just have to keep working and getting stronger," said Neal. "My ultimate goal is to play in the NHL next year, so I plan on really working hard this summer and coming into training camp ready to fight for a roster spot. I have always tried to play a physical, complete game at both ends of the ice while showing some skill and scoring some goals, so I'm going to work to do the same at the next level. Hopefully I can put on a Dallas Stars jersey next season."