James Neal’s star-studded, two-sport upbringing in Whitby

Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal celebrates a goal during NHL action against the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 5, 2019. (Jason Franson/CP)

The garage door was a mess. Like the dryer Sidney Crosby once used for target practice, but bigger. And right there facing the street.

The good news was, of course, that Peter and Deborah Neal didn’t have to worry about putting their cars in the garage in the wintertime, because Peter had flooded the driveway so the Neal kids could play hockey instead.

“All my siblings, the neighbours … Everyone was out there playing hockey,” said James Neal. “It was a great upbringing.”

But what about the car?

“Hockey was more important than the car,” said Neal. “I remember coming home in the summer after hockey was done, and looking back at the garage. It was patched up ten times over from pucks. It was like, ‘Oh my God.’”

Neal, who patrols the wing for the Edmonton Oilers these days, is a product of that upbringing in Whitby, Ont., where kids played “hockey in the winter, lacrosse in the summer. Pretty much our whole hockey team was our whole lacrosse team,” Neal recalled.

He grew up watching Whitby products like Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Adam Foote. And who did they grow up watching? Well, for Foote it was two-sport players that really impressed him.

“I loved watching Johnny Fusco and the Kernahans (play lacrosse), but my favourite was Joe Nieuwendyk,” said Foote, who is now the head coach of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. “He was a better lacrosse player than he was a hockey player — and he won three Stanley Cups for three different teams — if you can believe that.”

Celebrate Our Community. Celebrate Our Game.

This was life for a Whitby kid. An upbringing Neal would love to provide for his kids one day.

“My whole family is still back in Whitby — Mom (Deborah), Dad (Peter), brothers Mike, Pete, Nick, sister Rebecca and my grandma — we call her Nan. Family of five. Big hockey family,” he said. “We grew up, it was hockey, hockey, hockey in our family. Go down to Iroquois Park, the rink in Whitby where we had the Whitby Silver Stick tournament. It was a six-pad rink there, and after school there was a mad dash down to the rink — we were all practising around the same time. My parents would be at the rink from 2:00 ’til 9:00 at night.”

Foote remembers it the exact same way.

“A great hockey community, and an awesome lacrosse community. Real close in the summers, with barbecues and corn roasts,” recalled Foote. “There was a real good connection between the two sports in the community. And we got lucky, with Nieuwendyk and Roberts, then Keith Primeau moved from Markham, and we got him into lacrosse. He and I were on the same team.

“It was a fun place to jump from hockey right into lacrosse, and when lacrosse was done, right back into hockey. The lacrosse people would get mad when you went to a summer hockey tournament and missed a game.”

Lacrosse helped players’ hand-eye co-ordination, footwork and, of course, toughness. It also cemented bonds that moved seamlessly from the cement floor to the flooded pad, and eventually helped an inordinate amount of kids from small-town Ontario into the National Hockey League.

One of the keys to that evolution was Roberts, one of hockey’s earliest true fitness freaks. Neal followed in his footsteps, which meant getting into shape.

“I’m 14 years old, turning 15 and getting ready for my draft year into the OHL. It’s time to learn how to train,” remembers Neal. “Gary had a gym called Station 7 in the Skywalk in Toronto, when he was playing for the Leafs. I was going to All Saints high school in Whitby, and after school I’d get on the GO Train, take the GO Train down to Union Station in Toronto. It was a 10-minute walk and I was right at the gym.”

A little homework on the train ride home, and Neal would do it again the next day. He got drafted by the Plymouth Whalers, and when he came back in the summertime he found even more inspiration.

“I’d get to see all the Toronto Maple Leafs training there. You’d see Bryan McCabe, Tie Domi, Wade Belak, Matt Stajan. That was the coolest thing,” said Neal, who is well aware of the expenses his parents were paying so he could train with the best.

“I said I’d pay them back, but they wouldn’t take the money even if I tried. They sacrificed a lot for me to be able to play hockey, my whole family. Great parents.”

Deborah ran the land-registry office, and Peter was a real-estate agent.

“And my grandma, Nan, she lived with us our whole life. She did everything for us. A very special lady.”

Foote stands with sons Cal and Nolan, and wife, Jennifer, during a ceremony to honour him for playing in his 1,000th career game in 2008. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Neal would eventually buy a house next door to Foote, where he would entertain and inspire Foote’s boys, Cal and Nolan, the latter of whom is playing for Team Canada at the world juniors. Both were first-round picks of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“When he moved in next door, my guys were at the age where they wanted to go hang out with James and his buddies,” laughed Foote. “I think he was happy I was his neighbour, and I was happy he was my neighbour. We get each other, right?”

Today Neal is 32 years old and recently played his 800th NHL game. He had 14 goals in his first 30 games as an Edmonton Oiler this season, but last year — playing for Calgary — was a struggle. He had only seven goals, his body just wasn’t right, and he never got up to the level of fitness he is accustomed to.

Cue the Whitby mafia, and another summer spent with Roberts — this time alongside teammate Connor McDavid. It’s comfort food for a Whitby kid, to step inside of Roberts’ gym.

“Robs, to this day, is one of my best friends. He’s like my father — really, really close,” Neal said. “If I’m not at home or at the lake, I’ll be sleeping in his bunk beds at his place.”

When Neal was a kid, Roberts’ daughter, Jordan, would take him to Leafs games on her dad’s tickets. “She’d take me down to the Leafs Lounge and we’d do fist bumps with Robs before the game.

“It was really cool. I was so young.”

He’ll go back home next summer, maybe watch a little lacrosse. And the kids will watch him, because the Whitby chain doesn’t show any signs of breaking.

Not with this many NHLers to inspire the kids.

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