It took Cam Neely nearly two years to overcome a devastating leg injury. Last Thursday, when he finally returned to the Boston Bruin lineup, it took him less than five minutes to make his presence felt.
Cheers rocked Boston Garden whenever Neely appeared on the ice, and the noise built to an ear-splitting roar after he slapped a rebound past Minnesota North Star goalie Jon Casey 4:51 into the game. Hats, shoes and a stuffed toy Bruin came flying out of the stands as Neely pumped his left arm in jubilation. He capped his comeback by laying Minnesota's Dave Gagner flat with a ferocious bodycheck.
"I don't plan on playing any differently than I ever have," says Neely, 27, a two-time 50-goal scorer and the game's quintessential power forward. "I have to play physical to play well."
Neely's career was imperiled by a collision with Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman Ulf Samuelsson (SI, March l)on May 11, 1991, during Game 6 of the Wales Conference finals. "I went to hit him," says Neely, "and he ducked. His knee was bent, and my thigh hit his knee."
Samuelsson's knee dented Neely's left thigh with such force that part of the damaged muscle began to calcify. Doctors prescribed rest, and Neely returned in January 1992 to score nine goals in as many games. Then a flare-up of knee pain, caused by cartilage damage doctors attribute to the collision with Samuelsson, sidelined Neely again.
Since then he has undergone conventional knee surgery and arthroscopic surgery to remove fragments. Months of tedious rehabilitation followed. "There have been moments when I thought that it was all over for Cam," says Bruin assistant general manager Mike Milbury. "But he kept fighting back."
On Feb. 19, six days before last week's comeback game, Neely was at Boston's chilly practice rink in suburban Wilmington, Mass., fighting his way through a series of punishing workouts conducted by assistant coach Tom McVie. "Move it!" McVie barked in his best drill instructor's baritone as Neely fired slap shot after slap shot from the blue line. "Push!"
After whacking 30 shots in 30 seconds, Neely collapsed on his back at McVie's feet. Later, dripping with sweat in the dressing room, Neely struggled to catch his breath. "Tommy's a sick individual," he said with a smile. "But I need him."
While Neely was sidelined, the Bruins rebuilt without sliding too badly in the Adams Division standings. At week's end they were in third place, six points behind the second-place Quebec Nordiques. To challenge for the Stanley Cup, they'll need Neely to produce at something near his old pace. Anything seemed possible last Thursday when Neely lined up at right wing beside playmaking center Adam Oates. "I think I was more nervous than he was," Oates said after the game. "He played great." Two nights later Neely scored again as Boston beat the Washington Capitals 5-4.
Neely still carries a brick-sized mass of calcified muscle around in his left thigh, a reminder of battles fought. "Do I blame Ulf?" he says. "Let's just say, I know when we play Pittsburgh next. I've known for a long time. March 9, right?"