He stood in the visitors’ dressing room at the Air Canada Centre following a hard-fought, rare win in this lost season, looking every bit like the NHL warrior he is.
“There are 267 bones in the human body,” broadcaster Gordie Wilson said to him, less interested this time in being factually correct than making a joke. “And you have an ice pack on every one of them.”
Not quite, but the point was made.
A bag of cubes was wrapped around each of his thighs and hips, another on his left arm. Probably his feelings were still damaged, too, from having to say goodbye to some close friends the previous week.
Yet, as a key contributor with a game-high eight hits, he wore his classic victory smile.
Minus the front teeth, of course.
They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And, by the guidelines of Eugene Melnyk’s new master plan, it is time for Chris Neil to get going.
It does make financial sense to trade Neil, the team’s all-time penalty minutes and pointed facial expressions leader.
But doing so would not only be one tough pill for the Senators to swallow, it would also be wrong.
Such a hit on their team toughness, they cannot take.
At $2 million per, Neil is now the fifth-highest-paid forward on the team. Some will tell you that’s a lot of coin for a third-liner. Then there’s the fact he’s got two more years on his contract.
But you can’t put a price on loyalty, on dedication, on determination and on the pain both suffered and inflicted for the good of the cause.
In Ottawa, other players care deeply about their team. But Neil doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve — it’s all over his bruised and battered body.
When there was still hope, he called out teammates in the newspaper for not giving enough of an effort. You can assume he also did so to their faces, behind closed doors. It was because Neil despises losing even more than he does Adam Mair, which is exactly what the young prospects coming up need to learn.
From having four Chrises in their lineup at the start of the season, the Senators could be down to none by Monday.
I didn’t like the Kelly trade. Thought he was at a good price, and he’s a good, versatile pro. Thought he, too, would be a good example going forward. Second-round pick is too iffy. Senators will be lucky if it turns out to be anywhere near the player Kelly is.
The Phillips saga is quite interesting. He should be applauded by Senators fans for the love he is showing the city and organization. He wants to pass up a chance to win the Cup — and possibly millions he’d get on his next contract with a solid playoff run — to help get this team back on its feet. You have to admire that when you’re not too busy thinking how crazy he is. The Senators will still be here in the summer, Philly. There’s probably just as good a chance they’ll sign you at a discount price then as there is now.
Believe Campoli will be gonzo any moment now. The Senators won’t be asking a lot for him, and he can help a playoff team. Depending on what happens with Phillips, and if they can somehow move Filip Kuba, there won’t be room for Campoli at the money he’ll be looking for as a restricted free agent.
But Neil ... they just can’t afford to lose his grit and grind, not to mention his right and left.
As of earlier this week, his 182 hits were seventh-highest in the league. Next Senator on the list was Phillips, who with 90 was tied for 133rd.
Since first pulling on the Ottawa jersey in 2000-01, Neil has fought 157 times. Usually, it’s for a teammate, for the team. Often, it’s with a hand that’s still aching from the last brawl.
A relatively new-to-the-scene local reporter referred to Neil as “gutless” when Neil sent a message to a smaller player a few weeks ago. The guy lost some credibility that day. Neil has earned the right to pick his spots. He has fought guys who are much bigger and stronger for years. He is the exact opposite of gutless.
There’s no question why Binghamton tough guy Francis Lessard was called up when he was. The team wants to see if he can fill Neil’s role. God bless Lessard, but he’s not quite the fighter, and he’s not nearly as good a hockey player.
Alas, he’s also about $1.5 million cheaper, and in the salary cap era, GMs feel they have to skimp where they can. The Senators shouldn’t here, now, with Neil. It’s too difficult to find all he brings to the table, and he can play 12-15 minutes a night in the process.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” Neil said after that Toronto game. “This is where I want to be, but it’s out of my hands. Whatever happens, happens, but I want to be a part of turning this thing around.
“We’ve got some young guys in here and I think I’d be a good role model.”
Don’t deal Neil.