BY SOUTHGREY.CA STAFF –
On Thursday, December 14, hometown hockey hero Chris Neil announced his retirement from the NHL.
Born in Markdale, Neil lived with his family on their farm near Flesherton until his amateur hockey skills and pro hockey aspirations propelled him to other locales. However, he has remained the undisputed pride and joy of the local community ever since.
A product of the minor hockey system in Flesherton, he moved on to lace up his skates for the Grey Bruce Highlanders of the South-Central Triple A Hockey League. From there, it was a jump to the Junior Hockey League and a stint with the Orangeville Crushers.
In 1996 at the age of 17, Neil was promoted to the Ontario Hockey League where he played three seasons with the North Bay Centennials logging 72 points in his final season with them. It was here that scouts for the Ottawa Senators first took notice of him, picking him 161st overall in the 1998 NHL entry draft.
Neil spent two seasons with Grand Rapids of the International Hockey League before making his League debut on Oct. 3, 2001. As a rookie, he posted respectable stats with 10 goals and 17 points in his first 72 games. He soon became a fixture with the franchise and a true fan-favourite over the years.
Reflecting on his 15-season NHL career in an excerpt from the Ottawa Senators official website story by Craig Medaglia, the 38-year-old Neil said “When I came into the league I was an offensive player in Junior and I wanted to play in the NHL so bad that I changed my role… if you want it bad enough you can create a niche and play a long, long time.”
Neil was known for his toughness on the ice, racking up a team record total 2,522 penalty minutes. Despite this, he was never suspended for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I think it's a fine line with the way I played. You have to play on that line but you can't cross it,” said Neil in the Medaglia interview. “It's something that over the years you have to change your game and adapt to… the game has gotten quicker, your timing for hits and when the proper time to hit is. For me, I've been able to adapt with it and that's why I was able to stick around for so long… I love the game of hockey and I'm passionate about the game of hockey and it'll always be a part of my life. Just because I'm retired from hockey, doesn't mean that I'm done playing it.”
Neil participated in his first post-retirement game, playing for Team Phillips in the Ottawa Senators Alumni Classic on Friday, scoring a late goal in a losing effort against Team Alfredsson.
“What a great career Chris has had” said Grey Highlands Mayor Paul McQueen. “It just shows that a hometown boy can make it in the big leagues.” The Mayor went on to mention Neil’s milestone of surpassing 1,000 games played as an Ottawa Senator in 2016. “That was a great achievement,” said McQueen, to which he added “Welcome home Chris!”
Since his retirement announcement, congratulations have filled social media locally with some calling for the creation of a road sign to acknowledge his Flesherton beginnings. “We do need to recognize that he comes from our great community of Flesherton in the Municipality of Grey Highlands,” said McQueen.
Currently, Chris and his wife Caitlin reside in Ottawa with their three children Hailey, Cole and Finn.
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