OTTAWA — Chris Neil figured he wouldn’t stick in the NHL on skill alone, so he created a niche for himself based on toughness and a peerless work ethic.
It’s a role Neil played to the hilt over 15 seasons in Ottawa, endearing himself to teammates and fans in the nation’s capital.
The rugged winger officially retired Thursday morning after playing 1,026 games, all with the Senators. His 2,522 career penalty minutes leave him 20th on the NHL’s all-time list, and he leaves the game as one of only two players in NHL history (New Jersey’s Ken Daneyko is the other) to compile over 1,000 games and 2,500 penalty minutes while playing his entire career for a single franchise.
With a number of family members and close friends on hand, Neil was visibly emotional as he spoke of realizing his childhood dream of playing in the NHL.
“I hope that my demonstration of hard work has been an example to some and that it shows you can do anything if you decide to do it and put your mind to it,” he said.
With 112 goals and 250 points over his career, Neil, a sixth-round pick in 1998, never had any misconceptions about his skill level. He realized early in his career that if he wanted to stay in the NHL he had to create a role for himself, and quickly determined being an agitator would suit him well.
“He considered the Senators his family and he defended his family as well as anyone in the NHL,” said Senators assistant GM Randy Lee, who worked with Neil since he was an Ottawa prospect. “If somebody took liberties with one of our players or we needed a spark he took it upon himself to do the right thing.”
Neil’s rugged style resonated with fans.
“For me I think they appreciate the hard work,” said Neil. “I’m a blue-collar guy myself. Just show up and work hard. I never had the most skill, but I think for me I just go out and work hard game in and game out and do whatever I have to do to make the team win.”
Neil’s role diminished under head coach Guy Boucher last season and he was a healthy scratch through much of the Senators playoff run, playing in just two of the team’s 19 games. But when Neil did play, he made an impact.
“I personally want to thank Chris because without Chris in our lineup last year against the New York Rangers we never win that series,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion.
The decision to retire wasn’t easy, but the timing felt right for the 38-year-old and his family.
Neil explored various opportunities in the fall as an unrestricted free agent, but none of them felt right and in the end decided he was ready to move forward with his life away from the game.
“Obviously I miss playing the games, those are the fun times, and that’s what you put all the hard work in for,” said Neil. “I don’t miss the grind of the day-to-day that goes behind the scenes, but I miss being there with the guys. That’s the fun part and that’s something that I’ll always have to look back on.
“The biggest thing I’ll miss is the camaraderie with the guys.”
Neil said the 2007 run to the Stanley Cup final under Bryan Murray would always hold a special place in his heart.
“He had everyone going on all cylinders and it didn’t matter if you played two minutes or 22 minutes, he had everyone on the same page,” Neil said. “That’s just the way Bryan was and all those guys in that room would go through the wall for him.”
Neil has no immediate plans for the future, but wants to remain involved with various local charities and will be part of this weekend’s Senators’ alumni festivities and will play on Parliament Hill Friday night.