Neely

BOSTON – We know that New Englanders and Bruins fans throughout North America love Cam Neely.

He plowed his way into their hearts with an on-ice approach to the game that made sweat and blood a required decoration on the Bruins’ sweater. Even in retirement – which came way too soon due to injuries — the admiration of the region, and many throughout the U.S. has never waned.

But little did we know that Neely’s reciprocal feelings went well beyond his hockey relationship with the fans. He actually loves his second country enough to have acquired dual citizenship within the last couple years.

“When I got to a point where I knew I’ve lived in the States longer than in Canada, both my children were born here, my wife’s from the States, and then the other factor – although I have yet to vote – what got me thinking a little bit more was how close the vote was a few years ago,” said Neely tonight at TD Garden hours before the ceremony to honor him as one of this year’s Lester Patrick Award recipients. “I always thought, ‘well what does one vote really matter?’ Probably a lot of people feel the same way.”

In true American fashion, Neely said he doesn’t plan on voting next week. However, he can be excused for not having time to follow the races and – in his words – know enough to cast a vote. After all, he’s now in the fourth month of his reign as president of the Boston Bruins, which means he’s as responsible for wins and losses as he is for profits and player parking. Everything goes through him these days, which means he gets a large share of the credit for the resurrection of the Bruins as one of the model U.S.-based franchises.

You combine the impact Neely had on U.S. hockey as a player with what he has been accomplishing in his current role as executive, and you can understand why Neely received – along with Boston University coach Jack Parker, Boston College coach Jerry York and AHL president Dave Andrews – the 2010 Lester Patrick Award. The award honors individuals for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

Neely’s rise to power with the Bruins started a couple of years ago when he was hired as vice president. Last June, he was promoted to president. After not winning a playoff series for 10 years, the Bruins have reached the second round two straight years and are among a handful of favorites to go deep again this year. They’ve come a long way since the years after the lockout when they were always ticketed for the lottery and their season-ticket base could be measured in busloads.

“As you know, it’s so deep-rooted in New England, this franchise,” said Neely about using his position of power to make the Bruins a force again. “And to see where it ended up a few years ago was really kind of a shame and it was disappointing. There are a lot of reasons why, and most of them were reasons you could understand. It was certainly very important for me, as a former player, now in a position to help, to kind of get it back to where we’d all like it to be – which was you were proud to put that jersey on, you knew that you had a fan base that was rabid and educated and understood the game. And playing in front of a full building definitely made a difference.”

Current Bruins players of all ages and from all different backgrounds sing Neely’s praises for what they remember about him as a player and for the example he sets now as an executive. Even Neely’s predecessor as president, Harry Sinden, who was responsible for initially bringing Neely to Boston in a famous 1986 trade from Vancouver, holds Neely in as high regard as the club’s front-office leader as he did as a player.

“Cam has been very successful in his charitable work. He’s raised a tremendous amount of money for a great cause. And through that process he’s acquired a business acumen and an understanding of this community – the people and the fans of this community – so very well that he is perfectly suited for the job he’s about to do and has been doing,” said Sinden, who is a previous Lester Patrick winner. “On top of that, the bottom line for these people in top management – Peter Chiarelli, Claude Julien, Jim Benning and of course the president – is who can play and who can’t play. And Cam Neely, in my short discussions with him over the last couple years, convinces me that he knows that. That’s kind of the bottom line for all of the top management people, and it looks like we have a real good one.”

It takes one to know one in the personnel assessment business. Sinden remains one of the greatest hockey minds ever. You can criticize the way he went about the business side of the game, but few general managers would’ve had the foresight to trade Phil Esposito for Brad Park, Ken Hodge for Rick Middleton and, of course, Barry Pederson for Neely.

It’s difficult to imagine what would’ve have happened had Sinden not swung that trade.

“If I hadn’t made that trade, I would’ve been probably an advisor to the owner a lot earlier,” said Sinden, joking about the role he now holds. “But that was obviously … unfortunately for Cam first, Bruins fans second and the fans third, that was one of the most devastating injuries that Cam and the franchise and the people of this community have taken [that ended his career at 31]. But what he did in what is a relative short time for a career is incredible. And what he’s done as representative of the team and the sport in this community, he’s up there with any athlete we have in town.”

Said Neely: “The only conclusion that I can come up with is that I probably wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did [without the trade to Boston]. What I would’ve been able to accomplish is impossible to say. Maybe if I went to another team, maybe something similar would’ve happened and turned out. Obviously coming here was the best thing at the best time for me.”

To measure the impact Neely has had on a fan base, and the country as a whole, go to any Bruins game – home or away. Search the stands for those in black-and-gold t-shirts and jerseys. You’ll see your share of current players’ names on the backs, you’ll see some that say Bourque and some that say Orr. And you’ll also see plenty of ones that read Neely. Regardless of age or background, if you’re a Bruins fan, you’re a Neely fan – both because of what he accomplished as an individual and because he is the personification of what it means to be a Boston Bruin.

“It’s flattering, there’s no question,” said Neely about the adulation he still encounters on a daily basis. “I’ve been very fortunate to have this type of relationship that I do with our fans and I appreciate the fact that they liked the way I played the game and what I stood for. I retired in ’96, so to see that still happening is flattering.”

For everything he has accomplished and plans to do in the future, the U.S. should be flattered that Neely deemed this country worthy of even part of his citizenship.