Neil: 'I can't picture myself playing anywhere else'
Veteran forward, team leader inks three-year contract extension to stay with Sens
|Chris Neil could become only the third player in Senators modern franchise history to suit up for 1,000 games in an Ottawa uniform. He signed a three-year contract extension with the team today (Getty Images).
On a June afternoon nearly a decade and a half ago, it was likely the farthest thing from Chris Neil's thoughts.
But while Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo — the site of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft — has undergone a couple of name changes since then, the team that gave Neil his shot at living his biggest dream remains the same.
He can't imagine it being any other way.
"This is where I was drafted. This is where I want to be," the 33-year-old Neil happily stated earlier today in sharing some of his thoughts with ottawasenators.com after inking a three-year contract extension that will keep him in Ottawa through the 2015-16 season.
"To finally get something done — we've been talking for a little bit now — it's a great feeling. It worked out for both sides, the team and myself, and I'm really excited about it. I like the direction the team is going and I want to be a part of it."
Back on June 27, 1998 — when the Senators made Neil a sixth-round selection (161st) overall in the building now known as First Niagara Center — the thought of playing 14 seasons was hardly front of mind for Neil, who toiled in the minors for three seasons before finally landing with the Senators for good in 2001-02.
"You don't really think about that," said Neil, now a 10-year veteran. "When you first come into the league and you see the stats on the average (time) people play ... to be able to be around this long and contribute, have some great runs and play with some unbelievable players ... it's been a dream come true for me."
Over the years, he has become a valuable force and a team leader — one of four core veterans that Senators general manager Bryan Murray chose to build around when he began a retooling process with the team last season. It is a responsibility that the native of Flesherton, Ont., doesn't take lightly and, as anyone who knows him will tell you, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"When I first came into the league, guys like Wade Redden and Curtis Leschyshyn took me under their wing and molded me as a player," said Neil. "You try to do the same as you get older. I learned from them and now I try to teach the young guys what they taught me and carry it on down. To have some veteran presence in the locker room definitely helps.
"The way I go out and just try to play for the team ... you put your personal stats aside and try to do what's best for the team. (Murray) wanted guys like that around and it was an honour to have him say that about me."
Neil enjoyed two of his most productive National Hockey League seasons in 2005-06 (16-17-33) and 2006-07 (12-16-28) with Murray behind the bench, with the Senators reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time in modern franchise in the latter campaign. A true sense of loyalty has clearly developed between Neil and Murray, and more of the same is occurring with current Ottawa bench boss Paul MacLean — Neil produced 13 goals and 28 assists in 2011-12 and notched a game-winning overtime goal in Game 2 of a playoff series against the New York Rangers in which he was one of the Senators' most effective players.
"Having Bryan as a coach and GM ... he's been unbelievable to have in this organization," said Neil. "He's done a great job and he's been one of my favourite coaches, for sure. He gave me an opportunity to play and he sees (how) to get a lot out of a player. Paul MacLean is the same way. Mac gets the most out of his players and to be a part of that, as well, is awesome.
"If you have a good coaching staff and management, it make your decision easy to stay around."
With 731 games in the bank and now committed to the team for at least four more seasons, Neil is clearly on target to become only the third player — following captain Daniel Alfredsson and blueliner Chris Phillips — to suit up for 1,000 career games in a Senators jersey. It is a combination of longevity and loyalty that makes Neil swell with pride.
"To be a part of an organization and to be a part of it for your whole career ... there's something to be said about that," said Neil. "There's loyalty from the player and the team. Ottawa has been unbelievable to me. They gave me an opportunity to play (in the NHL) and I try to go out and play as hard as a I can, game in and game out, and try to do my best to help the team win. That's what they appreciate about me and I look forward to doing more of the same.
"Playing 1,000 games with one team would be unbelievable. To see (Alfredsson and Phillips) do it and be a part of it was just a remarkable feeling. Coming up with those two guys in the locker room ... they're a big part of developing you as a young guy. Watching Alfie in practice every day, he wants to get better and you just push yourself to keep up with him and try to get better every day as well, too. Watching those two guys gives you an easy role model to follow."
Over the years, Neil is also became entrenched in the community he now calls home. He and his wife, Caitlin, are the honorary chairs for Roger's House and are raising three young children – Hailey, 5; Cole, 2, and Finn, eight months — in what they believe is just the right place to be. It's another big reason, Neil will tell you, that he doesn't want to play anywhere else.
"This is home after hockey," he said. "The fans here have been unbelievable. They've been very fortunate in that we've put some good product on the ice (for them) over the years past years but even in the years that we didn't make the playoffs ... how they stick behind them and keep pushing you go to go out and play hard for them, that says a lot.
"Everywhere you go, people are always saying to us 'you guys do so much for the community' and stuff like that. To be a part of helping out in the community and with Roger's House ... that's important to me. To have (our children) grow up in a nice city like this is awesome, too. I can't picture myself playing anywhere else."