A place for Neil to find serenity

BRUCE GARRIOCH, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 4:16 PM ET

CALABOGIE LAKE -- With so much uncertainty -- whether he'll have to pack his suitcases and move to another home before next season, this is the place where Chris Neil can find calm.

There is something soothing about the water behind the property where the Senators winger is having his summer home built. It's only an hour outside Ottawa, but listen to the water hitting the banks makes and the hustle and bustle of the city seem like a world away.

While the luxurious three-bedroom structure -- with hardwood throughout -- is close to completion, it can't come soon enough for the 29-year-old Neil, who will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Neil's wife Caitlin will give birth to the couple's second child in September. They are already parents of two-year-old Hailey. They wanted this place to come and escape from the city on weekends, but this will be home where visitors will feel comfortable and family will be welcomed.

Since buying the property from a Calabogie-area businessman, the Neil family fingerprints are all over this place. Since last August, all three of Chris' older brothers -- Jeff, Dan and Jay from Flesherton -- have helped in the building of the modified Linwood home design.

The Senators winger spent a lot of last summer with a rented chainsaw in his hand cutting down trees so the property could be cleared for what's going to be a second home regardless of if he re-signs with the Senators.

"This is just something we always wanted," Neil told Sun Media at the cottage this week. "We looked at a lot of places. We just thought if maybe we could get a piece of land, we'd put the kind of home we wanted on it.

"Not only was this a chance to have a place where I can come and relax, I mean who couldn't relax up here? It was also a chance to give something back to my family. They've done a lot of the work here."

While Chris has done some of the work, "we don't let him touch much," said brother Jay, with a smile.

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The stunning cottage will be a place for Neil to relax. A UFA for the first time in his eight-year NHL career, he will have the right to shop himself around to the highest bidder if Ottawa doesn't step up to the plate.

After making $1.1 million (all terms US) last season, Neil doesn't hide the fact he'd like to stay with the Senators. He has roots in the community. His family is comfortable living in Stittsville. He has a short drive to the rink and his best friends are the ones he suits up with every day in the winter. There haven't been any formal discussions with the Senators since agent Todd Reynolds sat down with GM Bryan Murray before the final game last month at the Air Canada Centre, but Neil is still confident a compromise can be reached.

$2.5 MILLION PER SEASON?

Neil scoffs at the notion he is looking for $2.5 million per season. He admits there is a "gap" in what the Senators are offering and what he wants, but believes there's room to find common ground.

"I'm very hopeful. This is where I want to be. I was drafted here," said Neil, who was drafted 161st overall by the Senators in 1998. "I've been here through some tough times, with my mom (Bonnie) passing away and stuff. It's been a good relationship. We've had a good rapport."

Neil feels a little unsettled, but says he's not worried.

"I think there will be a lot of interest the closer I get to July 1st. The only uncertainty is not knowing where you are going to be," said Neil. "I'm going to be playing somewhere, so that's the main thing. My goal is to be playing in Ottawa."

Neil is getting plenty of advice. It comes from every corner -- the grocery store and the hardware shop, for example.

But the words that mean the most come from family and close friends. Caitlin will have a big say. And his father, Barry, who makes regular visits, has always been supportive.

A teammate with a lot of influence could be centre Mike Fisher. The two have been best buddies since Neil joined the Senators in 2001-02. Neil isn't sure what it would be like if they were ever apart. They are best friends.

It was Fisher who was with former Senators GM John Muckler in a hotel room in Raleigh, N.C. in November 2005 when Neil received the devastating news that his mother Bonnie had been killed in a car accident on icy roads near Flesherton.

"We've been close from the get-go. (Fisher's) a great person and great player," said Neil. "When I got called in when my mom passed away, I thought I was traded. John Muckler was there with (Bryan) Murray. I go into Mucks' room and Mike was there.

"I was sitting there, and I thought, 'Well, this is okay (if he gets traded) because Mike's with me.' I figured if I'm going somewhere, Mike is going with me. That's the way Mike and I are."

But it's Fisher's influence that has helped Neil find his faith. He is a Christian and met Caitlin -- a University of Ottawa grad -- at the Kanata Wesleyan Church. They were married in July 2006.

"We've made a lot of friends in the church and we've got a lot of friends in the community. That's why we love being here," said Neil.

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Neil didn't think he'd make it past the NHL trade deadline with the Senators. He sat in front of his TV on March 4 waiting to find out if he'd be dealt before the 3 p.m. deadline, but nothing happened.

"I was able to breathe a sigh of relief," said Neil. "It meant there was going to be a chance that I could stay here. You never say never, but it might have been tough (to come back) if I had been moved."

Neil didn't have the kind of season he or the Senators expected, after struggling with injuries.

"I'm a guy if I can get some stability and I know where I'm going to be, I can just go out and try to work hard," said Neil. "Sometimes you fight the puck and that was one of those years for me. I'll get back at it this summer, working out, and if I'm in Ottawa, it's going to be a different season.

"As a whole, we didn't play well. None of us were satisfied with how the team went. You are going to see guys coming in next year with something to prove. I've got something to prove."

l l l

At the lake, there are plenty of toys to keep Neil busy. He was hauling in a boat the day we visited. He picked up some used Jet-Skis. A couple of weeks from now, he's going to have a bunch of buddies up for some ATV four-wheeling If all goes as planned, the work inside will be done by the end of next week.

The Neil family's two dogs -- Bailey (a chocolate labrador) and Rudy (a cockapoo) -- both like to be the centre of attention. The summer home gives them a chance to splash around in the lake.

Neil's plan is to spend most of the summer at the cottage. He'll still make the short drive back to Ottawa to work out and already has started skating once a week.

He's hoping contract talks with the Senators resume soon. The cellphone works at the lake and is never far away.

"I just keep waiting for (Reynolds) to call to tell me there's a new offer on the table," said Neil, with a smile.

A lot of teams are looking for players like Neil. There's been speculation the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make a pitch.

Neil laughed at the suggestion he might sign with the Leafs.

"Like I said, my goal is to stay in Ottawa. That's a spot ... I don't even want to go there," said Neil.

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GETTING TO KNOW CHRIS NEIL

Hockey hero growing up

"Denis Savard. I really liked the spin-o-rama! I was a Montreal fan growing up. If I was playing floor hockey, I'd pretend I was Savard."

Best concert

"The Eagles when Eugene Melnyk had the concert for season-ticket holders. My mom and dad went to that concert with me and we had a blast. It was the last concert my mom and dad were together before my mom passed away, so it's a great memory."

Hobbies?

"I really enjoy the outdoor stuff, like four-wheeling, boating and horseback riding. I just like getting out, even just walking the dogs. I like to be outside in the fresh air."

bruce.garrioch@sunmedia.ca


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