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Day-to-Day For Life
Leigh Montville
January 31, 1994
A knee injury keeps Cam Neely from playing every game, but not from being a star
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January 31, 1994

Day-to-day For Life

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

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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.

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