Chris Neil was beneath the stands at the Canadian Tire Centre as his Ottawa Senators took on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. The 37-year-old enforcer watched on a television in the weight room with the team’s other healthy scratches, working to keep his body game-ready — in case he got the call he’d been hoping for.
Even beneath those stands, out of the spotlight, Neil could feel the rush of the crowd, the energy of that place. It felt like a return to a different time, when he was younger and the game was different, and the shape of his life was still forming.
“It sends shivers up your back,” he says. “It’s just the vibe that you get throughout the city. Everyone is talking about the Senators.”
But while Neil wants to be on the ice with his teammates, the Senators assistant captain is doing what he can to lead them off it — knowing well that they’re on the edge of something few ever achieve. And while still unsure if he’ll return for another season, he’s reflecting from a unique vantage point on what 15 seasons in Ottawa have meant to him.
After the Senators took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, he broke into the league in 2001. One of his closest friends, Mike Fisher, was selected in the same draft. Together they were part of a different Senators era, one that culminated in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. And while those memories were made on the ice, life unfolded off of it. He met his wife, Caitlin, at a local church they still attend. They had three kids — the first, his daughter, between Games 2 and 3 of that Final a decade ago. And he lived through the agony of losing his mother, Bonnie, who was killed in a car accident in 2005. He learned of her death after being called into a meeting with then-coach Bryan Murray while the team was in Carolina. He thought he’d been traded. When he walked in and saw Fisher there, too, he thought his friend was going with him. “Can’t be that bad if Mike’s going with me,” he thought.
“Chris, you better sit down,” Murray said. And Neil’s world shattered.
Back in Ottawa, in time, the pieces started to come back together. He surrounded himself with the family he’d gained in the place he’ll call home long after he hangs up his skates for good.
That will be sooner than later, of course. In this, the final year of his contract with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, Neil has been sparsely used. After missing part of the regular season due to injuries, he’s been a healthy scratch in all but two games during the Senators’ playoff run. During those appearances (when he was tasked with sending a message to Rangers pest Tanner Glass) he saw fewer than four minutes of ice time, combined. But he’s still doing what he can to lead, imparting wisdom on younger teammates from his own playoff experience.
“I’m no different than anybody else. I want to be in the lineup, contributing and helping out,” he says. “But I look back on when I first came into the league, and there were older guys who were sitting out. It’s just the way the clock goes.”
His assignment as an on-ice policeman, protecting the Senators’ stars, was one he adopted after being drafted in order to fill a role in the NHL and fulfill his dream. It’s one he still believes in, though he’d happily do without the fights. And it’s the role that, along with his age, is rendering him less useful to the present than he was to the past.
But Neil’s not complaining.
“I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have been part of it for so long. And to have played for so long,” he says. “I don’t take anything for granted.”
Neil hasn’t made a decision on what he’ll do when this playoff run ends. There is a good chance he’s already played his last game as a Senator, if not as an NHLer. But he’ll worry about that when it’s time.
Right now, he’s just thinking about the next game. And if the opportunity comes, Neil will be ready.