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. Play...rest...play...rest...play. 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.