OTTAWA — Chris Neil wanted to go out the way he came in.
So, naturally, he chose the home team penalty box at the Canadian Tire Centre from which to salute fans following his jersey retirement ceremony Friday evening.
As the No. 25 Neil banner was raised to the rafters, to take its place alongside the banners of his former Ottawa Senators teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips, Neil wiped tears from his ruddy cheeks.
He had wept earlier when he spoke about his family, especially his late mother, Bonnie.
And Neil made this revelation. All those times he would win a fight and raise his arms to ignite fans in the stands? Neil says it doubled as a message to his mom that he was OK.
The Senators are getting this jersey retirement bit down pat because this was a ceremony that did not miss a note. Filmed walking out to the ice from the Senators room, where he donned his Sens sweater for one more time, Neil walked through a phalanx of ex-teammates, with Phillips and Alfredsson the last pair to greet him.
The crowd erupted as Neil entered the arena in a salute.
“That was incredible,” Neil said afterward to reporters in the corridor outside the Senators dressing room. “It’s an incredible honour. For me and family this week has been amazing, what the Ottawa Senators have done to make my family feel right at home again.
“I can’t say enough about this organization and this community. As I said in my speech, they’ve embraced me right from the day I came in. And you guys (the media) have as well, you guys have been tremendous to me over my career.”
An earlier video showed the Neiler greatest hits, a robust clip that Don Cherry would have appreciated.
“He literally scrapped his way through the minors,” Phillips said, introducing Neil. And he had to crack a lineup on the right side that included Alfredsson, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat.
Neil recalled all the great moments, from Darcy Tucker leaping into the Ottawa bench for a fight to high-fiving many of the thousands of fans who greeted the team at the airport following the Sens victory in Buffalo to send the team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007.
Neil would score Ottawa’s first goal on home ice in that final series.
Above all, Neil displayed a sense of humility and gratitude on his special night.
Expressing love and thanks for family and friends from Flesherton, Ont., Neil told us after his speech he was thankful wife Caitlin, “my rock,” and their three children — Hailey, Cole and Finn — were not only here for the ceremony, but the children were old enough to remember dad playing. Hailey was born the day after Neil’s Cup Final goal in ’07.
“My kids caught a bunch of my years in the NHL and for them to be able to witness this, it’s incredible,” Neil said. “My youngest, Finn, he was tearing up.”
Neil acknowledged the support he had throughout his career and cited too many franchise members to repeat, although Allison Vaughan, Bryan Murray, Jacques Martin and Marshall Johnston were high on his list. It was Johnston who scouted and drafted Neil.
“Thanks for believing in me,” Neil said.
He also thanked Dr. Don Chow for providing nearly all the stitches he needed over the course of a pugilistic career.
Neil’s No. 25 jersey is the fourth in the history of the Senators franchise to be retired and third of the modern era. Neil is one of only three players (with Alfredsson and Phillips) in Senators history to dress in 1,000 games for the club. He sits 20th on the NHL’s all-time penalty minutes list and is one of only two players in NHL history to compile over 1,000 games and 2,500 penalty minutes while playing the entirety of his career for a single franchise.
Not bad for a sixth-round draft choice, 161st overall, by Ottawa in 1998.
After a rugged three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the North Bay Centennials, Neil spent a couple of years in the minors before making his debut with the Senators in 2001 as a 22-year-old.
The Sens beat the Leafs in Neil’s debut game, a fact cited Friday by Ottawa mayor Mark Sutcliffe, to a roar from the CTC crowd.
Defenceman Wade Redden was already an established NHL star by that time, and he recalled the impression Neil made at his first Senators camp.
“I remember calling my brother and saying, ‘There’s this new guy, and he’s a pretty good player, but he just fights all the time,'” Redden said. “And I think that’s kind of how he announced himself to the team … he just wanted it so bad and knew what it would take to make a name for himself. His work ethic made him into a really effective player, too.”
Redden believes Neil’s physical presence helped take a young contending team to another level, as the Senators were among the NHL’s best clubs from 2002-07.
“We were a brotherhood,” Neil said of those teams. “We’d do anything for one another, and we held each other accountable and that’s what it took to win. We won a lot of games.”
Throughout his long career, Neil worked on improving every aspect of his game, including the science of fighting. He would study other tough guys, didn’t want to be surprised to find out that his opponent was a southpaw.
Though never in the super heavyweight class — Neil was a solid 6-foot-1, 210 pounds as a player — he wasn’t afraid to take on anyone. And he rarely lost a fight. Even big Zdeno Chara was in tough against Neil.
Never suspended, Neil pushed to the line but never crossed it.
“I was close a couple of times,” he joked.
He worked on his skills as well, often staying at the end of practice to join in the keep-away games with captain Alfredsson.
Neil scored 112 goals and 250 points in 1,026 NHL games while amassing 2,522 penalty minutes.
He’s no Hall of Famer with those numbers, and yet Neil was impressed to receive the blessing of so many hockey greats when he attended Alfredsson’s induction ceremony and played in the Hall of Fame game.
“There were legends down there, I’ve never met them before and they’re coming up to me and saying, ‘That’s incredible (getting your number retired). It’s well deserved, the way you played the game and did everything you had to for your team to win.’ To have those guys come up, I was very humbled,” Neil said.
In his address to the media Thursday, general manager Pierre Dorion opened with a salute to No. 25 for all he has given the Senators and this region.
“I’m honoured to be the GM when we’re retiring Chris Neil’s jersey,” Dorion said. “Chris, as a player, was a warrior, on and off the ice. He did everything to get the maximum out of himself. He’s someone that we’re so happy is still part of the organization (as VP of Business and Community Development). He’s someone our fans really identify with.
“I know if there was a war on, I’d want Chris by my side. We don’t beat the New York Rangers, the last time we made the playoffs (2017) if Chris Neil is not with us. He came into that series (Game 5) and changed the tone of the series.”
Alfredsson often said Neil used his physical tools in a positive way.
“He’s not just running out of his way to make sure he gets his hits,” Alfie said, during a series against the Rangers. “He picks his times pretty good and especially in the playoffs that’s pretty important.”
Of course, Neil is known around Ottawa as much for his community work as for his hockey history. Neil and his wife Cait have been affiliated with Roger’s House, a palliative care facility named in honour of the late Roger Neilson, for more than a decade.
As a year-round resident of the Nation’s Capital, Neil has long been a go-to guy for charity appearances and commitments involving the Senators, including work on behalf of the Ottawa Senators Foundation (relaunched last fall as the Senators Community Foundation).
Neil will still be around, a fixture in the organization.
Only his number No. 25 has gone. From the roster list, up to the heights.