- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- At 30,000 feet, a pair of future Hall of Fame hockey players would sit in the back of the Boston Bruins charter flight and discuss the talents of teammate Cam Neely.
During his first few seasons with the Bruins in the early '90s, Adam Oates would listen to Ray Bourque marvel about Neely.
Oates arrived in Boston via trade from St. Louis during the 1991-92 season, and at that time Neely was still rehabbing a severe knee injury and attempting to return to game action. No. 8 was limited to only 22 games over two seasons (1991-92 and 1992-93), and Bourque would tell Oates: Just wait until Neely is healthy and you'll see just how good he is.
"I just always remember sitting in the back of the plane with Ray and talking about Cam and Ray saying to me: 'You haven't seen anything, yet,'" Oates said. "Ray got to see Cam before he got hurt and I never did. Ray would say to me, 'You have no idea how good you guys could be.' I always remember Ray saying that. I don't think there's a better compliment than that."
Finally, during the 1993-94 season, Neely's talents were on display and he achieved something only eight other players in NHL history accomplished.
It's been 20 years -- almost to the day -- since Neely scored 50 goals in 44 games.
Now the president of the Bruins and a Hall of Famer, Neely still shakes his head in disbelief on that accomplishment.
"When I do look back, it's one of those things where I still shake my head and it's hard to believe I was able to accomplish that," Neely said. "Obviously, with the help of my teammates, primarily Adam Oates, even Joe Juneau too before he got moved, but to play with Adam and to have the opportunities that he presented with his playmaking skills I certainly benefited from that. It was just one of those magical seasons that's hard to explain. It just seems like, and I certainly wasn't on the ice as much as I would have liked to be, and then when I ended up playing the puck just seemed to find its way in."
Neely wasn't able to play every game, and when he finally scored his 50th goal of the season, it was the team's 66th game on March 7, 1994 at the Boston Garden. The Bruins defeated the Washington Capitals 6-3 and Neely finished with two goals and one assist for three points in the win.
Only five players -- Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky (three times), Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull (twice) -- scored 50 goals within their team's first 50 games, while a few others (Lemieux, Jari Kurri, Alexander Mogilny), like Neely, netted 50 in 50 or fewer games played.
Fittingly enough, almost 20 years to the day later, the Bruins hosted the Capitals on Thursday night at TD Garden. Oates is the coach for Washington, while Neely watched from management's box on Level 9.
Each of them recently reminisced about that special season.
"The biggest thing, and I said this at the Hall of Fame, I'm one of the few people that know how hard it was for Cam just to play hockey at that stage, let alone what he had to go through on a day-to-day basis to be able to play," Oates said. "And to not be able practice in between games, people don't realize how important that is for your conditioning, timing, etc. The rehab involved for the guy just to be able to play, and then to do what he did on top of that ... [and] do it in the condition he was in was incredible."
From a team standpoint, the Bruins were solid that season. They finished with a 42-29-13 record for 97 points and finished second in the Northeast Division behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. Many of Neely's goals that season were a mix of highlight-reel and good old-fashioned lamp-lighters.
Oates can't recall when he realized Neely was locked in, and even after it was obvious, no one really talked about it.
"We had a really good collection of guys, chemistry-wise, and he was the best piece in the middle that could bury the puck," Oates said. "We all complemented each other. He was on such a roll and it was just a magical year, magical for him and we were all happy to be a part of it."
There was one goal Oates remembers vividly.
It was Neely's 36th of the season against the Quebec Nordiques on Jan. 31 at Boston Garden. Neely scored two that game against Quebec goalie Stephane Fiset, but on his second goal Neely danced through almost every defender before scoring a sweet goal.
"Otherwise, all the other goals were kind of all hardworking goals. He was in the right position to get something accomplished and bang, bang it was in the net," Oates said.
Neely wasn't available in the playoffs that season due to injuries, but the Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals before losing to the New Jersey Devils in the semifinals.
After Neely scored his 50th on March 7 in the team's 66th game of the season, he played only five games before injuries ended his season. In those five games, he did not score another goal and registered only three assists.
"In all honesty, it was just my mindset changed," Neely said. "I was fine up until I got hurt and then my season ended. But I was someone who set a lot of personal goals for myself, internal goals that I wanted to accomplish and achieve. I looked at it as, OK, I got 50 goals, which is a measure goal scorers make for a hockey season. If I can get 50, then it's an accomplishment. I think the fact that I got 50 in 44, and I don't think I set my mind on scoring 60. If I did that, I probably would've had a good chance, obviously with staying healthy, but a good chance of achieving that if I set my mind to it. I think what happened, when I got 50 I felt like, 'OK. Wow. I got 50 and let's just get ready for the playoffs.'"
What makes Neely's accomplishment even more impressive is how hard he had to work to rehab his injuries in order to play again. Imagine what Neely could have accomplished had he been healthy?
"Yeah, it's almost one of those sad things that you don't even want to talk about because one never knows, right? It's amazing that one of the best years I had in my hockey career, I played with a guy with one leg," Oates said. "I didn't get to play with him for very long, so in hindsight and looking back for both of us, you never know, right? I would've liked to say, at some point, we would've won a Cup, and kept playing together and playing well together."
During his career, Neely scored 50 goals three times. In both 1989-90 and 1990-91, he scored his 50th goal on the road. His third and final time reaching the milestone was a little more special.
"They were all special for different reasons," Neely said. "The first one is special because it's the first time you're able to accomplish that, so that's something that puts you in a different class of goal scorers in the league. And then to do it a second time it kind of shows that the first time wasn't a fluke.
"For me, the third time is obviously very special because of all the things I had to go through to get back to playing, and I wasn't playing on a regular basis. And it was the first time I've done it at home, which all the support I received from our fan base for all the years that I played here, it was nice to be able to reach that accomplishment at home."
Wayne Gretzky scored 50 goals in 39 games (1981-82), 50 in 42 (1983-84) and 50 in 49 (1984-85). He was the "Great One," but he was loathed in Boston, while Neely was, and is, loved by Bruins fans. So, it's hard to compare the two accomplishments.
"I don't want to say that one is better than the other because you can't slight Wayne Gretzky in any capacity, right? Just to accomplish the feat is incredible," Oates said. "Scoring 50 in 50 is rare, rare number in our sport, but to do it the way Cam did with all the injuries he sustained is just incredible. How many guys have scored 50 in 50? ... And I got to play with two of them (Blues right wing Brett Hull in '90-91), so I'm a lucky man."
Current Bruins forward Jarome Iginla also belongs to the 50 goal-scorer club. He scored 52 in 2001-2002, and again in 2007-2008 when he notched 50 for the Calgary Flames. Like all goal scorers, Iginla thought about what it would be like to accomplish what Neely did 20 years ago.
"I don't know anything about 50 in 44, that's a whole other level of streaking and feeling good about yourself," Iginla said. "But, yeah, when it's going sometimes it feels like the puck follows you and finds holes and you're getting it off quick. It doesn't feel just lucky, you feel like you're hitting your spots and you usually have great chemistry going with your linemates where you're getting to a spot and they're finding you. It takes a lot of guys playing well to be able to have that kind of success, and that's just me trying to get 50 in 80, it's not 50 in 44."
Iginla remembers how important it was to get off to a good start in each season in which he reached 50. He was trying to score every game, which remains his mindset, but it doesn't always work out that way. Once he found that groove and was connecting with his linemates, he was shooting a lot.
"Confidence is a big part of it where the puck feels really good and feels like you can try anything. Having that sniper touch, you become the trigger guy," Iginla said. "Other days it feels like the puck is square," Iginla said.
Oates says he's talked to a lot of people about Neely's accomplishment over the years, but hasn't discussed it with Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, who has produced four 50-goal seasons and is on pace for a fifth this season. The No. 1 overall pick in 2004, Ovechkin was only 9 years old when Neely scored 50 goals in 44 games.
"He's Russian and didn't necessarily know the NHL then and didn't know the feat, but he knows what 50 goals is and the number of guys who have done it," Oates said. "But we haven't talked about it, but I've compared him to Cam in terms of the physical presence. They play different positions in some ways, but they both use their body very well. That's something that Cam did and people didn't give him enough credit for. The one thing for a lot of goal scorers, and people don't give them credit, but they're smart guys. People don't score goals by accident at any level. You've got to have some knowledge of the game to be able to do that."
Until a recent discussion with his brother, Neely didn't realize it has been so long since that season. Even when he talks about it, he continues to shake his head in disbelief because of everything he had to battle in order to stage one of his greatest seasons in the NHL.
"I can't believe it's been 20 years," he said.
7dScott Burnside and Craig Custance