The 36-year-old forward has appeared in 953 career games with Ottawa and the city has become home for Neil, his wife, Caitlin, and their three young children.
But the NHL trade deadline is just a week away and over his 14 seasons in Ottawa, Neil has seen many good friends dealt at or near the deadline. Neil, who is scheduled to become a unrestricted free agent at season’s end, has the toughness and leadership many teams covet although with a limited no-trade clause he’d have some say in his hockey future.
“It’s part of the game and I have no control over it,” said Neil. “Obviously this is where I want to be and I want to be a part of this so I’m just going to play and do whatever I can to help the team.”
Last year, it appeared Neil would be dealt until he suffered a fractured thumb weeks before the deadline. Ottawa went on an incredible run during Neil’s absence and he didn’t return to the lineup until the playoffs.
With new head coach Dave Cameron behind the bench, it seemed Ottawa was ready to move forward with its young core of players. But this season, Neil is just one of three Senators to play in all 60 regular-season games.
“He knows what his role is, he accepts his role and he’s really good at his role,” Cameron said. “He wears the ‘A’, he wears it well, he cares, he bleeds this team in and out.
“Deep down as a coach sometimes you have to make decisions as your players get older. But also before you’re making those decisions you’re cheering for the guy and you hope he’s able to contribute to a point where you can play him enough that he’s happy and he’s done that.”
During Ottawa’s exit meetings last season, Cameron asked Neil if he’d consider losing weight. Neil took it to heart, reporting to camp almost 12 pounds lighter.
“Obviously it makes a difference the way the game’s going and you’ve always got young kids knocking at your doorstep wanting your job,” said Neil. “With the style I play that’s where your off-season training comes in.
Ottawa Senators’ Chris Neil celebrates the winning goal scored by Cody Ceci, not shown, against Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack during third period NHL hockey action in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
“I’ve always trained hard in the off-season and through the year I maintain and do what I have to do extra in the gym. That’s one thing I can always take pride in, I’ve always worked hard and stayed at the top of my game.”
Cameron credits Neil for making the necessary changes to his game at this point in his career.
“He came in and he made his reputation in what we would call old-time hockey,” Cameron said. “You had guys on your bench and they played and they fought.
“The guys that couldn’t change, that couldn’t adapt since the lockout and the new rules, are no longer in the league. Chris is still in the league so clearly he was able to adapt and play. Now there’s no room left in the league for just a pure fighter, you have to be able to play.”
Neil has been one of Ottawa’s most consistent players this season. Although he has just three goals and 10 points, his line is always hard to play against.
And Neil’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“He came in on a mission and it showed,” said linemate Zack Smith. “He’s probably one of the top five competitive guys I’ve met in hockey on and off the ice.
“He doesn’t like to give up and it shows and it’s a big testament to how long he’s been around.”
Ottawa departs Monday for a three-game, six-day road trip. Neil said when he leaves his house, he has every intention of returning still as a member of the Senators.