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Cam Neely thinking back to childhood while looking ahead for the Boston Bruins

Playing in the 2010 alumni game at Fenway Park took Cam Neely back to a childhood spent on backyard rinks. AP Photo/Adam Hunger

BOSTON -- As the Boston Bruins prepare to host the Montreal Canadiens in the 2016 Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Hall of Famer Cam Neely is dusting off his skates, getting them sharpened -- and loading up on Advil.

The last time No. 8 played was during the alumni game at the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. A big reason he's playing on Thursday is because of the opponent. Any chance he has to beat the Canadiens, he'll do whatever it takes, even though his knees are telling him not to.

ESPN.com spoke recently with the Bruins team president about the upcoming Winter Classic and the state of his team.

Joe McDonald: How much did you skate on the ponds when you were a kid?

Cam Neely: Oh, man. Although I was born in British Columbia, six months later, my dad was transferred. He was in the Air Force, so he got transferred to a base outside of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and I spent a lot of hours on a backyard rink. I've got to tell you, when you hear all the players say, 'Oh, it brings you back to your childhood,' it absolutely does. When I played in the alumni game at the Winter Classic, it brought back all those memories of being outside all day until your feet were frozen off.

It's a big deal. I'm thrilled we're able to host it again. A different venue gives us more opportunity to do more things around the stadium because of the space, especially with youth hockey. We're big on trying to continue to grow youth hockey, not just in Massachusetts, but all over New England, so this gives us another opportunity to do that.

JM: You never played in an outdoor game during your career. What would that have been like?

CN: That would have been cool to do.

JM: Why do you only lace 'em up for alumni games?

CN: I want to save my joints for golf. My knees just bark at me too much now.

JM: You mentioned youth hockey, and numbers are growing in the U.S, so how proud are you with the organization's dedication to the sport at the grassroots levels?

CN: It's important for us to do that as an organization. As everybody knows, there's great college hockey, not just in Massachusetts, but in Rhode Island, where Providence [College] had a great year last year [winning a national championship], so it's important for us to help grow the game, grow the sport. We're trying to introduce 1,000 kids a year into hockey. That's something we started last year and you hope the kids continue it, but we offer them starter kits to get going.

It's our duty to grow the sport here. Obviously I'm biased, but whether you play it or watch it, it's one of the better sports, especially as a spectator sport because of the action, but people have to understand the game to be able to sit and watch it. That's a challenge, so the more we can introduce people to the game, and even the cartoon series we're doing, it's geared toward kids so they can sit down and maybe learn something about the game.

JM: Speaking of growing the game, what are your thoughts about expansion in the NHL?

CN: Well, you want it to be right. As far as enough players, I guess it could be debatable. Can an expansion team be a competitive team early in its expansion? It's hard to say. It has to be right and that's why the league has taken its time because they want to make sure it's right. It would be nice to have balanced conferences, I can say that.

JM: What was it like having that conversation with Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs about all the offseason changes, and telling him he had to be patient with the new plans?

CN: First of all, [hopefully he] had the confidence that maybe these guys know what they're talking about, or at least hopefully about that. You look at the core group, we still have a world-class goalie [Tuukka Rask], still have a real difficult shutdown defenseman in [Zdeno] Chara, we still have [David] Krejci, [Patrice] Bergeron, [Brad] Marchand and we've seen Loui [Eriksson] improve again last year, so we still felt we had really good components to a good team. The amount of times I've talked to Mr. Jacobs is on a regular basis, so it's not necessarily just one two-hour conversation; it's conversations over a period of time.

JM: From the start of the 2015-16 season until now, what has impressed you most about this team?

CN: That was part of the conversation [with Mr. Jacobs] that we have a lot of new faces getting adjusted to a new coach, the coach adjusting to some of the things that [GM] Don [Sweeney] wanted changed, the way we played, and not really being able to get our team together right until the end of camp, and even then we had [Dennis] Seidenberg out. So, knowing that even though you got all these exhibition games, we were still auditioning backup goalies, we're looking at what young kids could make an impact and we had more openings than prior to past years when we knew what your team was going to be. There was more competition than we've had in the past.

We knew it was going to be a little rocky to start, but we didn't think it was going to be like that. But I really give the players and the coaching staff credit of sticking to the plan and saying, 'OK, let's keep working.' There's a difference between coaching and teaching -- you've got to do both. So, there was more teaching, especially with the new bodies, and it takes time for players to understand what the coaching staff is looking for, but having the patience to go through that even though it was pretty ugly.

JM: How do you think coach Claude Julien has done?

CN: Claude and his staff have done a really good job. It's not easy having a number of new faces. We've got guys that hadn't played in the NHL, or hadn't played much in the NHL before, so bringing those guys along, there's a coaching part and a teaching part, and they've done a really good job of teaching and that needs to continue to go on. We've always liked what he's brought to this organization. There's no gray area when he deals with the players. They know he's a straightforward coach and he'll tell it like it is, and a lot of it is behind closed doors, which I think it should be as a coach.

Then there's adapting to a new GM, but the conversations that Don and Claude have, I know Don is very active and very involved, and that's his working style. Don's constantly talking to Claude and our other coaches, which is important that everybody understands what we're trying to accomplish here.

JM: How has Don Sweeney done so far in his first season as GM?

CN: He's done a great job so far. It took a lot for him to do what he did in and around the draft, and he wasn't afraid to do it. One of the things about having Don in the organization for as long as he has been, he's seen some things that maybe did not go the way we would have liked to have gone. He didn't have to educate himself on the players, the staff; he knew who they were and what they were about. He had a good understanding of what was in our system, so all those things were a benefit for Don.

I give him credit because the way we started, there was no panic in him at all, even though it wasn't easy for him with the comments that were flying around in and around the draft, and then throughout the offseason and obviously the way we started. There was no panic in Don. You wouldn't have known he was as frustrated as he was with how things started, but he stuck with his vision and made sure everyone knew we were deviating from the plan. We said it was going to be a little rocky and bumpy and we'll pull out of it. We still have a long way to go, but to have the stretch that we've gone on after the start, and keep climbing the ladder has been refreshing.

JM: What or who can make this team better?

CN: We're still trying to find our way with consistency. Claude's done a really good job of juggling lines when he feels he needs to, and that's something he's done a good job at. If he sees someone who's really not going they way he would like, he's quick to change to give us a spark. Hopefully some of the young guys continue to improve. With Dennis Seidenberg, think about how much hockey he has missed, and then the long offseason, he's still rounding his game into form, and as the games tick off, he'll continue to improve. Colin Miller, this guy has been a really good player for us, and he only stands to get better.

JM: It's still a couple of months away, but how active will you be before the trade deadline?

CN: Listen, we talk on a regular basis how to improve our club. If there's a deal to be made that's going to help our club, we'll do it. We've got more assets now than we've had in a long time. We have some flexibility with the cap that we haven't had the luxury of in awhile, so hopefully with those two things, it gives us more opportunity -- although it's not easy to make deals.

JM: Who was the best player you saw play?

CN: My first three years in Vancouver, I saw a lot of Wayne Gretzky and that team. I saw him do some things, more on the playmaking side, that I had never seen before. I don't recall [Bobby Orr], watching him. Obviously, I saw the highlights, but the way he transformed defensemen was unlike any player in the game. But just from what Gretzky did and how he did it and what he could do, so watching him at 18, 19 [years old] from prime seats was pretty amazing.

JM: How good were those Edmonton Oilers teams that beat the Bruins in the 1988 and 1990?

CN: Well, '88 I really felt we weren't in that class. In '90, I thought we had a chance -- I really did. That triple-overtime game really sent the momentum the other way, but I really felt we had a good opportunity there. That kid line -- the secondary scoring -- really made a big impact on that team. If you have another layer like that, it makes a big difference. We had that [against the Vancouver Canucks] in 2011.

JM: Harry Sinden spent 17 seasons as team president. How long do you envision having this role?

CN: As long as I keep doing a job that people are happy with, and the fire still burns, and the passion is still there. For me, the passion has to be there. That's the most important thing, whether you're a player or in a position like this, is the passion to want to win and the hate-to-lose has to be there.

JM: Is it there?

CN: Always.

JM: The topic of concussions has been at the forefront of sports at every level. How has it changed since your playing days?

CN: Well, the education level has changed dramatically. There's so much more information how to identify it properly, or better. Then what you do after the fact, so it's more really about the information and then that information being shared.

JM: How is that awareness going in the right direction?

CN: The players are the ones, you can set all the rules you want, but if the players don't follow them, there's not much you can do other than suspend them. The players have done a good job. You're seeing less and less of these blindside hits, boarding or hits from behind. The players' safety department has done a really good job of educating the players before each season -- here's what we're looking for and here's what you need to avoid. They're doing a really good job with that.

JM: Thanks for your time, Cam, and enjoy the Winter Classic.