Tie in for Sens' Neil

Chris Neil has gone from being just a brawler to one of the Ottawa Senators' more effective players...

Chris Neil has gone from being just a brawler to one of the Ottawa Senators' more effective players night after night. (Ottawa Sun/Blair Gable)

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:47 PM ET

SUNRISE, FLA. -- Considering the source, it's a fistful of praise.

"I'm a big fan of Chris Neil's," said former Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Tie Domi yesterday. "Even if he is with the Senators."

While they have had their differences in many chapters of the Battle of Ontario, Domi, who retired in September after 17 years in the NHL, has nothing but respect for the rugged Ottawa winger.

Domi has liked Neil since the first time they met in 2001 on opening night in Toronto. Neil introduced himself as they lined up for a faceoff and, naturally, challenged Domi to a fight.

"He skated up to me and said, 'Come on, Domi, some day I want to be just like you.' Then, he kind of laughed and repeated it," said Domi, an analyst with TSN who played more than 1,000 NHL games. "It made me feel old at first, but I also thought it was a nice compliment as well."

Domi isn't surprised Neil has established himself as a solid two-way player, who not only leads the league in hits (80), but also has 14 points (seven goals) in 22 games.

"I'm really proud of Chris Neil and I'm really happy for him and what he's been able to do," said Domi. "He's really established himself as a solid player in the league.

"He's had to work hard to get the opportunity and I know how tough that can be. Pat Burns gave me that chance in Toronto to play with guys like Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin and that really helped me establish myself as a player. You want to be able to make the most of that when you get the chance. You want to be able to contribute more than just fighting."

Neil, 27, has seen his role shift dramatically under coach Bryan Murray. Instead of just being counted on to drop the gloves, Neil has been on the ice in key situations, is expected to create traffic in front on the power play and has scored some big goals.

Domi believes some credit for Neil's success has to go to the presence of Brian McGrattan.

Said Domi: "Chris Neil no longer has to sit in his stall in the dressing room before every game and think, 'Well, I'm going to have to fight this guy tonight.' He's got McGrattan there to take care of business as well and that helps a lot.

"I remember when Wade Belak came in to Toronto ... that helped to lift a lot of the weight off my shoulders. Just having that other guy around means a lot. You don't just have to think about dropping the gloves every night. That can be a tough role every night if you're trying to do that alone and contribute in other ways as well."

Under former coach Jacques Martin in a playoff series against New Jersey in 2002-03, Neil was a healthy scratch so the club could get winger Magnus Arvedson into the lineup. That wouldn't happen now.

"I remember that and I know what it's like to be the tough guy and to be a scratch in the playoffs," said Domi. "You're sitting there and you're thinking, 'I paid the price for these guys all year and this is the thanks I get.' That's why you have to develop as a hockey player."

So, how does Neil keep it going?

"I was on Don Cherry's Grapevine show one of my first few years in the league and he said to me: 'When a crusher becomes a rusher, he soon becomes an usher.' That was something that stuck with me," said Domi. "You've still got to finish your checks and take care of business. Don't forget what got you there.

"The only advice I can give (Neil) is to keep playing the way he's playing and don't become reckless. The last thing you want to do is go out there in front of a packed building of 18,000 people and put your team in a bad position. I really believe he's the kind of guy who can keep it going."


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