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."