After a Hall of Fame career, Cam Neely made the successful transition to the front office, where he has quickly become one of the most influential people in the game today.
Under his watch, the Boston Bruins, with whom Neely spent 10 of his 13-year NHL career, have become one of the most consistent and successful teams on the ice while expanding their reach in the community through a number of innovative programs.
Neely took time off from his duties as president and alternate governor with the Bruins to speak with USA Hockey Magazine about his duties as the leader of an Original Six franchise, in addition to his role as a hockey dad and fan of the game.
USA Hockey: Life is good in Boston these days with the Bruins playing well, the Beanpot tournament wrapping up and youth hockey season is in full swing. What are your thoughts on the local climate of the game in New England?
Cam Neely: I think the way the [Bruins] have played over the last few years has certainly generated more interest in the sport. New England has always been a strong hockey region, especially with all the great colleges that we have here. Youth hockey is picking up, which is a good thing, so New England is one of the leaders for hockey in the country.
The Boston Bruins and Mass Hockey have a long history of working together, with programs such as the Mini 1-on-1, Bruins license plate program and the Mike Cheever Grow Hockey Program. How important is it for the Bruins to have a strong relationship with the local hockey community?
CN: I think it’s extremely important for us to have that relationship with grass-roots hockey, and continue to grow that relationship. These fans play the sport, and we’d love to see the sport grow in Massachusetts and in New England. It is one of the best spectator sports there is, and it’s very important for the Boston Bruins to be involved in hockey in this region.
Are there any other programs in the works to help promote the growth of youth hockey, not only in the Boston area, but also throughout New England?
CN: We do a lot of clinics over the course of the year throughout Massachusetts and New England. We try to make it fun for the kids and also give them opportunities to learn the game. We’re very fortunate that we have a great alumni base here in Boston who are happy to be involved.
You were recently honored for your efforts in promoting and working with grass-roots hockey with the Lester Patrick Award. What did winning that award mean to you?
CN: You look at who’s received that award in the past, it’s basically the ‘who’s-who’ of hockey, so it’s always an honor to be in a group like that, there’s no question. For me to be recognized in this country for hockey is something special. I came here as a 21-year-old and ended up staying here and marrying a woman from New York. And now we have two kids who were born in Boston. So to be recognized by USA Hockey like that was a treat for me.
Your role with the Bruins must keep you very busy, but how often are you able to get out on the ice with your two children, Jack and Ava?
CN: Not as much as I like. I try not to get in the way of who’s coaching their teams, but I am an assistant coach with my daughter’s team, so I try to get out there as much as I can. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten on the ice with my son Jack’s team. He keeps asking when I’m getting out there, so I need to do it soon.
Do your kids come to dad for advice about their hockey? Are they familiar with your Hall of Fame career?
CN: They don’t really ask for too much advice. I certainly give it to them when I can and when I feel like it’s something they need to hear. But it’s pretty casual in our house as far as hockey is concerned. I certainly don’t want to force feed it to them. My son has gotten more and more into it this year; it’s really bit him more than the past couple years, and he’s really enjoying the game.
They know my career a little bit. I talk to my son from time to time about something, tell him ‘You got to get in there, you got to get a little more physical’ and he usually says, ‘Dad, I don’t play like you do.’
The Bruins have been great supporters of USA Hockey, working closely on issues from coaching education to the American Development Model. What are your thoughts on the ADM?
CN: I think it’s a great program, and more and more people are starting to understand it and adapt to it. My daughter plays in an in-house program and they do some cross-ice stuff. I think parents don’t understand that [the ADM] is the best thing for their kids because they’re on the ice more, they actually get to play with the puck a little bit more. You know that if there’s a really good player on one team, he or she generally dominates and no one else really gets involved. So I think some of the changes that USA Hockey has been doing with the ADM and some of this other things are a great improvement to the learning and teaching of hockey.
The National Hockey League and its board of governors, of which you’re a part, have been very generous to USA Hockey in the recent past, helping to fund programs such as the ADM and Membership Development. Why is it so important for the NHL to support grass-roots hockey initiatives?
CN: We get a lot of great athletes from Canada, but it’s a lot different up there with the amount of people who are playing hockey nationwide compared to the States. We’d like to get a lot more American-born hockey players in the NHL, and the only way you’re going to do that is by growing the game at the grass-roots level. I think the NHL and the Board of Governors understand that. You want the best athletes you can get. The States is a big country with a lot of people, so creating programs that get more kids playing the game is only going to benefit the sport.
The issue of concussions has been a hot topic at all levels of the game. The seriousness of this issue has hit close to home for the Bruins with injuries to several key players, including Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard. What are your thoughts on what is being done to curb hits to the head at the professional level, and how concerned are you as a former player and, more importantly, as a father about steps being taken in youth hockey to not only keep kids safer but also to properly diagnose and treat concussions?
CN: Let me address the youth hockey issue first. I think they’re taking it very seriously, and I can say that at the NHL level as well. Everybody’s being educated about the symptoms of concussions and what to look for more than in years past. I think it’s important at the youth level to get players to understand when they can hit somebody, how they can hit somebody, and then they grow with that understanding throughout their knowledge and throughout their ranks.
When your talking about players at the NHL level, the game is so fast and guys so big, there’s more incidental contact that results in concussions than there is actual blindside hits or lateral hits, so the players are learning. They’re understanding nobody wants to get put out with a concussion or a hit to the head, and the players are learning that and it’s showing. There are times when guys are pulling up when they feel like someone’s in a vulnerable position and the players have to police that themselves.
Can you talk a little about the Neely SK8 Challenge [which takes place on March 11]? How did it come about and what does it do to improve the lives of children battling cancer? How did you get involved in the foundation?
CN: We’re all familiar with run-a-thons, bike-a-thons and walk-a-thons, so I said why not some kind of skate-a-thon? We’re fortunate to have the support of FMC arenas, a group that manages a number of rinks here in Massachusetts and New England, which jumped on board and said they’d be happy to donate some ice time for this.
It’s a great way to raise money and to get the kids to understand the meaning of giving back at a young age and give them a reason to get on the ice and get some exercise. All the proceeds go through the Boston Bruins foundation but they end up at my foundation to help cancer patients and their families that are dealing with this awful disease.
Unfortunately I just had knee surgery a week ago, so I am out of commission for a while, but I participated last year and I’m sure I will be out there next year to support this great cause.