James Neal opens his mouth and scrunches his face to help raise his scabbed upper lip. All that effort from the Vegas Golden Knights winger results in a view of an absolutely battered gum that once had at least four front teeth and is now home to a gap you could fit half a hockey puck through. “Everything’s sensitive,” Neal says, standing rink-side after an off-day skate in Toronto. With those teeth missing up top, all aggressively punched out by a stick to the face in late October, Neal “can’t do anything,” he says. Eating is tough, and don’t bother asking him to whistle because he doesn’t think that’s funny and “it hurts too much.” The wounds reopened during a game a couple days ago and blood poured from Neal’s mouth. Says the Golden Knights leading goal-scorer, now dressed in sneakers, knee-high socks, shorts and a Vegas hoodie: “Nothing’s good right now.”
Well, nothing inside Neal’s mouth, at least. This season is a whole other story: “Everything’s gone better than you’d expect,” Neal says, and that’s an understatement. Nobody predicted any of this for the Golden Knights. Six days after Las Vegas was the site of the worst mass shooting in modern American history, the NHL’s 31st franchise played its first-ever game, and the team not only became a rallying point for a grieving city but, to everyone’s surprise, they also started winning, which is very un-expansion-like. Vegas matched a 100-year-old NHL record for the quickest team to nine wins in an inaugural season — getting there in just 13 games — and the Golden Knights were the best in the NHL for part of October. Only five teams have more than Vegas’s 21 points right now, and that’s despite a tough stretch of late with their first-, second- and third-string goalies injured — including the face of the franchise in Marc-Andre Fleury.
For now, a gritty goal-scorer from Whitby, Ont., who’s sick of food in smoothie form is wearing that franchise label. And you could argue Neal earned the right to share it with Fleury right out of the gate. As teammate Nate Schmidt puts it, “Nealer’s pretty much the catalyst of what started our Vegas movement.” That’s a surprise, too, since Neal didn’t think he’d even be in the lineup to start the season. He was in a cast until early August after playing with a broken right hand during Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. Left unprotected by the Predators in the summer’s expansion draft, Neal rehabbed and made an impact with Vegas immediately, scoring twice in the first game on Oct. 6, including the game-winner — from his knees.
There’s no question the motivation is there for the second-round pick who has outscored all but four skaters taken ahead of him in the 2005 NHL Draft. Neal had a career-high 40 goals six seasons ago, he’s had at least 21 in each of his nine seasons in this league, and this is a show-me year: his contract is up at the end of the season, and he’s with a team few expect much from. Whether he becomes a key addition to a club looking to improve its playoff chances or sticks around and leads this unlikely early success story to more wins, it’s a big year for the 30-year-old. “This is my fourth NHL team,” Neal says. “I want to win.”
James Neal was in Grade 4 and on the smaller side for a nine-year-old when he took black and red markers and went to work on his white bedroom wall. The oldest of five siblings, Neal staked out a spot where he didn’t have hockey posters or a jersey hanging, and he wrote, in big block letters:
Being an ’87 birthday, that last line was the year he expected to be drafted. Neal’s dad, Peter, walked into his son’s room, saw the artwork and couldn’t believe his eyes. He gave James a talking to, by then familiar to all, “because I was always mad at the kids for destroying the house,” Peter says. Neal laughs, thinking of his art. “My dad eventually painted over it,” he says. Even under a couple of cover-up coats of paint, though, Peter says Neal’s marker work was still visible.
Young Neal was probably ahead of his time in writing down his goals, but that’s pretty consistent with his childhood from a hockey-intensity standpoint. His is a family that purchased Saturn cars because they had plastic doors, which meant dents from errant hockey pucks popped back into place easily. Up until two years before James’s magic marker stunt, the family lived in Oshawa, but “we moved to Whitby for the rink,” Peter explains. Whitby was home to a brand new six-pad facility, so ice time would be easier to come by. The family also made its own rink, which started in the backyard but moved because, as Neal recalls, “the living room window took a real beating.” While neighbours were laying down salt to melt the ice in their driveways, Peter was out with a hose soaking his. This made things dicey for anyone who wanted to enter the Neal home on shoes. “It was hard on the pizza delivery guy,” Peter says. To avoid injuries, he’d roll out a carpet.
Outside of daily games on the street, in the front yard and in their home’s front foyer (all four Neal boys wore full equipment and used full-sized sticks indoors, so chandelier lightbulbs were often replaced), Neal starred with the Wildcats of the Whitby Minor Hockey Association. In high school, he started to train over the summers with then-active NHLer Gary Roberts, who’s now known for training many of the league’s elite. One morning, a teenaged Neal had to commute from the family cottage on Balsam Lake back to Whitby for the workout. Neal was running up the road at the cottage to catch his ride when he “collided” with a bear. Both Neal and the bear were so startled they ran in opposite directions. Peter swears this is true.
To see all six-foot-three and 220 pounds of Neal bash around in the corners in search of the puck, you could maybe be convinced of that Chuck Norris-scares-a-bear story. But Neal wasn’t this big as a teenager — and his lack of size is probably the reason he was a third-round pick in the OHL draft. Known as a quick skater who easily found the back of the net, Neal was just five-foot-nine in his midget year, and the Plymouth Whalers got him 80th overall. “It’s weird about James,” says former Whalers coach, Mike Vellucci. “I don’t think he ever got the credit that he was due at that age group.”
Vellucci, now head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes affiliate in Charlotte, liked what he saw from Neal, despite his size. “I loved his hockey sense and his compete level — I mean, he competed. He always had his feet moving, he was always involved in the play. You could tell he hated to lose.”
Neal began his junior career at a lower tier with the Bowmanville Eagles, and by the time he suited up for his first full season in Plymouth, he stood his full six-foot-three. He wasn’t just bigger, though. “You could see his confidence had grown, and he had this incredible shot — he started to use that more,” Vellucci says. Neal put up 44 points in 67 games his first year in Plymouth, eighth-best in the league among rookies. That summer, the moment he’d scrawled on his bedroom wall came around. The NHL draft was held in Ottawa, and a kid named Sidney went first. Neal got a phone call informing him he’d been selected 33rd overall by the Dallas Stars. “For some reason,” Vellucci says, “he was always under the radar.”
Neal continued to star for the Whalers, and his final season in Plymouth, led them to the 2007 OHL championship, the first in franchise history. Neal scored the overtime winner to earn his team a Memorial Cup berth, and his eyes widen thinking about what he calls “the scariest tap-in of my life,” because of what was on the line. “I was right in the middle of the net and Evan Brophey made an unbelievable play and he just slid it to me,” Neal says. “Tapping it in was an amazing feeling.”
And it was the type of moment the team expected from Neal. In 20 playoff games that season, he had 13 goals and 25 points. “He was a pure goal-scorer,” Vellucci says. “He was our leader.”
At the end of that season, just before Neal would begin his pro career, the coach took the 19-year-old aside and told him: “This is your chance to prove everybody wrong.” Now, 11 years and four NHL teams later, that’s exactly what Neal is trying to do in Las Vegas.
No. 18 for the Vegas Golden Knights has all 32 of his teeth and he’s walking down a sparkly gold carpet, dressed sharply in a brown sports jacket and a tie with a growling tiger’s face on it. It’s opening night in Las Vegas, and Neal stops to sign autographs for some of the hundreds of fans who’ve turned up for pre-game festivities before watching the new team play its first game at home. Elvis has been outside the building for hours. Four Clydesdale horses tow a Dalmatian on a wagon nearby. But most surprising of all is the Golden Knights are 2-0-0, and Neal, the winger who missed training camp while recovering from injury, has already scored three goals.
A couple of hours later, Neal records Nos. 4 and 5 of the season, and a third straight game-winner to bring Vegas to 3-0-0. His former Penguins teammate, Fleury, is another major reason this team gets off to a perfect start. The goaltender grins when asked about Neal following the 5-2 win over Arizona. “He’s a great shooter, a smart shooter. He’s always hungry for more,” Fleury says. “I’m glad we have him.”
Finding himself on an expansion team four months after falling two games shy of winning a first career Stanley Cup, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Neal to be as “glad” as his teammates. You’d think this would be the toughest transition of his career, a real disappointment. But on opening night in Las Vegas, he keeps repeating that the team has to “enjoy the opportunity we have here.” And a little over a month later, on a road trip that includes a stop in Toronto, his message hasn’t changed. He points out that at least the move to Las Vegas didn’t come as a total surprise. With his contract expiring at the end of this season, he figured the Predators would leave him unprotected. “Honestly, I was more ready for what happened than in the past when it was just a phone call: ‘You’re traded,’” he says. “This wasn’t as bad.”
Neal can’t tell you which trade was toughest for him to swallow, but he never expected either of the first two. In Dallas, at age 21 he earned his way onto the Calder Trophy ballot after a 37-point rookie season, and his 24 goals remain a Stars’ record for rookies (not including the Minnesota era). He improved on that mark with 27 goals in Year 2, but was shipped to Pittsburgh in his third season to help a banged-up team — Crosby was out with a concussion, and Evgeni Malkin had season-ending knee surgery.
Neal had his best year statistically with the Penguins at age 24. Skating on Malkin’s wing he put up 40 goals and 81 points in 2011–12 to earn some Hart Trophy votes. He figured he’d be a Penguin forever. But in 2014, following a second-round exit from the playoffs that saw Neal record just four points in 13 games, rumours swirled that he wanted out. “It got so twisted up,” he says. “I never asked for a trade. I never wanted to leave Pittsburgh.”
After three seasons with the Penguins and no championship, Neal got a phone call while he was at Matt Niskanen’s wedding, sitting at a table with a bunch of guys he was about to find out were no longer teammates. “I was north of Minnesota, in the woods, and I get this voice mail,” Neal says. “It was a bunch of mixed emotions, especially because it was Nashville. I didn’t know much about the Preds. I was leaving a hockey market to go into what at the time wasn’t the biggest market,” Neal pauses. “It was tough, but as you get older you realize you’re not going to be with a team forever.”
At stop No. 3 of his NHL career, Neal quickly became a valuable piece of the Predators offence. He missed time because of injuries that first year but still managed 23 goals in 67 games, and then in 2015–16 he put up 31 in a full season. Neal joined a nucleus of players that helped bring the franchise from a first-round playoff exit in 2015 to a Cup Final appearance in 2017. “It turned out to be unbelievable,” he says, despite the eventual loss to his former team. Neal also played the final two rounds with that heavily-taped broken hand, barely able to hold onto his stick — even with needles before every game to numb the pain. “You do everything you can to play,” he says. It’s a lesson he learned as a kid, he adds: “Unless you’re dead, you’re getting on the ice.”
Neal now has a plate and screws in his hand and he was still patiently waiting for it to heal in late August, when he flew out to Sonoma Valley in California for a meeting with Golden Knights owner, Bill Foley. The pair shot a commercial for Foley Estates Vineyard and Winery, then ate and drank and talked wine, food and hockey. “It was awesome,” Neal says. He was very intrigued by the sommelier on hand and the work required to do that job, but of course hockey was the main topic of conversation. “We talked about being an expansion team, but making the playoffs,” he says. “It’s a different expansion team than in the past. We have good players, we’ve got a great goaltender, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect the most out of our guys.”
He continues: “I think when you think ‘expansion team,’ you think you’re going to lose, you’re going to get good draft picks. But for us, we’re here to win. Every guy in our dressing room has something to prove, and we’re playing that way.”
According to Schmidt, it’s Neal who’s setting the pace with his play, spreading the message that a playoff-bound season is well within the team’s grasp. The defenceman shakes his head when he considers the start Neal had to the campaign despite skating with the team for a total of just four days before the inaugural game. “That might be new recipe for success: Take training camp off, score eight goals in the first four games,” Schmidt says, laughing. (It was actually six goals in four games.) “But he’s the guy we look to, to say, ‘If we’re gonna have success, this guy’s gonna have to play well.’ And that’s what he’s doing.”
Schmidt then launches into a recap of the start of the season: “We got over the hump here, got the first goal. He’s the guy. We come back and win the game in Dallas — voila, he’s the guy that gets the winner.” Schmidt throws his hands up. “It takes a lot of pressure off other players when he’s performing well. And it is a lot of pressure for him, but he’s been doing really well with it and just getting other guys to understand that we need everybody to pull up.”
Schmidt has one hand up in front of him, like it’s resting on a ledge. He moves it a little higher: “When Nealer’s playing well, it brings the rest of us up as well.”
Across the league, only 10 players have more than Neal’s nine goals, and his three game-winners rank second overall.
“That’s a world-class player right there,” says fellow forward, Jonathan Marchessault, the 30-goal-scorer for Florida last year, looking to his left, where Neal is sitting in the visitor’s dressing room in Toronto. “He puts the puck in the net more easily than anyone on our team. Even with the high expectations on him, he has been able to deliver.”
Hours later, Neal gets his team on the board against the Maple Leafs with his eighth goal of the season. He narrowly misses his second of the night in the dying seconds of overtime, a five-hole attempt that Frederik Andersen just manages to keep out. Neal gives himself a smack to the helmet in frustration, then slumps over his team’s bench. Moments later, his shootout attempt is stopped. The Knights come away with just one point.
Neal can’t deliver a game-winner every night, but for this over-performing Golden Knights team, his ability to put the puck in the net when the stakes are high has been the most welcome of many early surprises. It’s anybody’s guess whether Neal finishes this season where he started it or joins his fifth NHL franchise. All he can focus on now is his play on the ice. Neal flashes that big gap along his upper gum again, and a pristine full set of teeth along the bottom of his mouth. “It would be pretty amazing to win in Las Vegas,” he says.
Big Read: How Steven Stamkos has become the NHL's top playmaker
The fact he’s leading the NHL in scoring isn't so surprising. But does the Tampa Bay centre’s shift from goal-scorer to set-up man signal a fundamental change in his game?