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Day-to-Day For Life

A knee injury keeps Cam Neely from playing every game, but not from being a star

The nights off are more of a challenge than the nights when he can play. If the Boston Bruins are at home, Cam Neely is on the move. He watches a little bit of the action from the Boston Garden press box, a little bit of the action on the television in the dressing room, listens a little bit on the radio. Always on the move. If the Bruins are on the road, he sits in his house and fidgets with the clicker, surfing through the channels, Larry King to the Bruins to the Home Shopping Network to the Bruins to ESPN to the Bruins to CNN, around and around, cubic zirconium rings and talking heads and Lorena Bobbit and Tonya Harding intertwined with power plays and slap shots through the five hole.

How can he watch? His stomach grumbles. He does not know what to do with his hands.

"I get too nervous to watch a whole game," he says. "It's hard to explain. I guess I want to be out there so bad.... I don't know. If we have a power play, I'll watch the whole thing. Then I have to look somewhere else. It's easier for me not to look than to look. Do you know what I mean?"

He is the part-time superstar, and there are no rules for what he should do. Watch? Not watch? Who has done what he is doing? Who can give advice? He does not practice on the day of games with the rest of the team. He does not practice on the day after games with the rest of the team. He does not practice with the team much at all.

He might be the craziest x factor in all of organized sport. The nights he can play are a gift. Plugged into right wing on the Bruins' first line, he is a 150-watt bulb replacing a night-light, brilliance suddenly filling the rink. His appearance could not be more sudden and powerful than if he arrived in the Batmobile from the Batcave. In 28 games this season, he has scored 32 goals, tied for second in the NHL at the All-Star break. He has eight game-winning goals, first in the league.

The nights he can't play? There have been 17 of them. The nights he can't play are the challenge. They are a helpless look at a reality that most 28-year-old athletes don't have to consider when they are in the midst of their 150-watt rambles.

"I guess I'm day-to-day for the rest of my career," Neely says. "I guess that's my philosophy. You think about it, and it's not a bad philosophy for any athlete to have. Isn't every athlete just one play away from the end of his career? Couldn't any game be his last game? Actually, it isn't a bad philosophy for anybody. Live each day to the fullest because it could be the last. What do any of us know about what's going to happen next?"

His problem is a balky left knee. He played only 22 regular-season games in the past two seasons because of the knee, and as late as October, when the knee swelled with fluid again, he thought that perhaps his career was finished. All of his workouts are scheduled around what is best for the knee. He coddles it, babies it, disciplines it, tries to keep a precarious balance of conditioning and muscle strength without overtaxing the knee. If there is to be only so much hockey left in the knee, then it will be hockey played in games and it will be the most hockey possible. He will coax the knee, send flowers and singing telegrams to it if necessary.

"There have been so many knee injuries on this team, from Bobby Orr until now, that we're using everything we've learned, good and bad, in trying to make this work," Neely says. "There have been a lot of advances since Bobby had to stop playing [in 1979], a lot of advances since Gordie Kluzak [1990] and Michael Thelven [1991] had to stop playing. We're trying to learn about all of them."

The trouble began in the final game of the 1990-91 Wales Conference championship series when Neely was drilled twice by Pittsburgh Penguin nemesis Ulf Samuelsson. One of the hits led to an unusual condition called myositis ossificans, which caused a large portion of Neely's left thigh muscle to turn to bone. As part of the treatment for that condition, his left leg was placed in a splint for much of the off-season. He missed the first 38 games in '91-92 with the thigh injury and returned to score nine goals in nine games before the knee ailment developed.

At first it did not appear to be very serious. No one knew how the knee had been injured—if it was from one of the Samuelsson hits or from the treatment for the thigh muscle condition—and it still is a mystery. Neely wasn't very worried about it. He went to the hospital with the thought that the knee would be scoped, a simple procedure, and he would be back in the lineup in about 10 days. As he went under the anesthetic, he was a car on a rack, getting a 10,000-mile oil change. He awakened to find out that one of the tires was missing and probably could not be replaced.

"That was the shock," he says. "I went to sleep thinking 10 days, and I woke up, and the first thing the doctor said was, 'Your season's over and I'm worried about your career.' Just like that."

This was not the first shock nor the worst shock he had ever experienced. Despite a grand rise to All-Star status in his first six seasons with the Bruins, during which he scored 55 and 51 goals in his fourth and fifth years, respectively, his on-ice joy always had been tempered by office sadness. In the spring of 1986, less than two months before he was obtained by the Bruins from the Vancouver Canucks in one of the great NHL steals (Neely and a No. 1 draft choice for center Barry Pederson), both of his parents were found to have cancer.

He came from a close family in the small town of Maple Ridge, B.C., two boys and two girls. His brother, Scott, was a year and a half younger, and they played games all day, every day, games of knock hockey and table football with quarters, accompanied by the requisite screaming and nonsense. His father, Mike, was in the Canadian Air Force for 22 years, then retired to sell real estate. One of the kids in the neighborhood was Larry Walker, a goalie who later turned out to be the rightfielder for the Montreal Expos.

Cancer? Both parents at the same time?

"It was emotional, all kinds of emotions at once," Neely says. "I was in Vancouver for three years, and they weren't using me very much, so my career wasn't going anywhere, but my personal life was wonderful. Everyone could come to the games all the time, and everyone was healthy. I go 3,000 miles across the country, and my career takes off, but my personal life falls apart. It teaches you an awful lot about your priorities, about what really counts."

In 1987 his mother, Marlene, died of cancer. His father, who was suffering from a brain tumor, went through the long regimen of chemical and radiological treatments. When Cam was told he had a possible career-ending injury, he didn't have to look far for perspective. How could he complain about anything when he thought about his mother, when he saw his father?

"My father never complained about anything," Neely says. "He was one of those fathers...he didn't push you, but he told you things. I remember I went away from home for the first time, the juniors, and I was 15 years old, the youngest kid on the team. Everyone else was 16 and had a driver's license. I was in a whole other world from those kids, and I was miserable. I wanted to quit. My father came up and told me that I had signed a commitment, that I had given my word. I could quit, but he thought I should honor a commitment. I stayed."

The new commitment was to rehabilitation. Working with Bruin conditioning coach Mike Boyle at Boston University, Neely began a series of exercises that emphasized strengthening the muscles around the knee without taxing the joint itself. This was the lesson from Kluzak, the former Bruin defenseman, who worked constantly at strengthening the muscles but wore out his injured knee doing the exercises, which ended his career. Different exercises were needed. Neely found himself riding a bike using only one leg and walking backward on a treadmill and tossing a medicine ball and walking backward in a strange elastic-band relationship with Boyle, two giant elastics connecting their waists, the two men walking around and around the BU track like a curious dance couple, Boyle walking forward and Neely walking backward. Sometimes they would work out seven days a week.

"Cam's knee is not a situation where one good whack, one trip on a crack in the ice, will do it so much damage," Boyle says. "At least we don't think so. The worry is overuse. More than anything, Cam's knee needs rest."

This was the approach they took when Neely came back at the end of last season for 13 games out of the team's last 24. The approach was reinforced this season when he overworked himself in the final days of training camp and the knee swelled again after the first two games of the season. Was this it? Was this the end? Neely found himself feeling as low as he had felt since the first knee injury, thinking that the knee never would allow him to play. A week of rest, however, brought down the swelling. He moved into the schedule that he has followed ever since, missing most practices this season, missing assorted games, babying the knee, working the muscles around it, playing assorted games and just knocking everyone dead when he did.

It has been a crazy business. He is playing the best hockey of his life.

"When I was injured [Bruin general manager], Harry Sinden told me to watch some games from the press box, to see what I could learn," Neely says. "I never had watched much from up there. I found a couple of things. First of all, the game looks a lot easier up there. Second, I found that you have more time to do things on the ice than you think. Not a lot of time, but some. I think that helped. I have a different perspective on the game now, too. It still means a lot, but it doesn't mean everything. I can leave the game when I go home."

"Cam, to me, is everything this franchise stands for," Sin-den says. "He's not only the quintessential Boston Bruin, I think he's the quintessential hockey player. I know you have Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and I'm not saying I wouldn't take them first in a draft, but Cam does more things, things that they don't do. He hits. He works the corners. I don't say there aren't other guys who do that, but Cam docs it as well as anybody."

A goal a game, just about every game. The thought has been that if this is the last game, then it will be the best game possible. Neely has been his familiar self, 6'1", 217 pounds, a big man with a soft touch skating around the ice, making room wherever he wants to go. He has surprised everyone with his numbers. He has surprised himself. Is this a new sort of training routine for hockey? Not practicing hockey?

In the middle of his comeback, in the middle of November, his father came to visit. Mike Neely always liked to visit, hanging around the dressing room, being with the team, being with his sons, who now live together in a Boston suburb. After his wife died, Mike came a couple of times a year, staying for a couple of weeks each time. There usually were some preparations for the trip, figuring out which games would be on the schedule, what time would be best, but this time he simply called and said, "I'm coming Wednesday."

In September the doctors had stopped all treatments for his tumor, saying there was nothing more they could do, so no one was kidding anyone else about the significance of the trip. At the same time, this did not stop the fun. For most of the two weeks, he was with his sons and around the team, and there were a lot of laughs. The day before he was supposed to return home, he became sick. He checked into a hospital on Nov. 21 and died that evening. He was 54 years old. Cam and Scott made all the arrangements, bringing the body back to Maple Ridge for the funeral.

"It's the same thing as before," Cam says. "When my career wasn't going right, my personal life was going right. Now that my career is going right, my personal life isn't going right. I not only lose my father, I lose my best friend. You say that he got seven years he didn't think he'd have, and you appreciate that, but at the same time you think about him, think about things you want to tell him about. I'm lucky, I guess, to be around a team, to have all these people around me, to be involved."

Day-to-day for a career. Day-to-day for a life.

Who can dispute the philosophy of the part-time superstar? Who can dispute the truth? The games, they are a gift, a skate under the lights, surrounded by happy noise. It is the nights off that arc the challenge.





Despite tight coverage all over the ice, Neely has averaged more than a goal a game this season.



[See caption above.]



Neely works to strengthen the muscles in his left leg without taxing the knee.