All week, CSNNE is taking a look at Boston's Toughest at 6 p.m. Every day our Insiders will profile the player they feel is the toughest they've seen on the team they cover. Today's team: The Bruins.
Toughness takes on many forms in hockey. That's especially true for an Original Six team like the Boston Bruins, which has been around for 90 years.
There have been ferocious fighters like John Wensink (who even once chased Claude Julien around the ice during their playing days years ago, challenging the current Bruins coach to a fight).
There have been big, strong power forwards like Milan Lucic, who was voted the NHL’s most fearsome player by his peers just a couple of seasons ago.
There have been superstars like the legendary Bobby Orr. who played through chronic, excruciating pain in his knees to become the greatest player in the history of the NHL. And his teammate Teddy Green, who was as tough a customer as they came even before he managed to return from a swinging high stick that cracked open his skull during the NHL’s crazy, Wild West era of frontier justice.
There have been many brave, undersized players willing to take hellacious hits in order to make plays, the ultimate sign of hockey toughness.
And it would seem almost a crime to ignore the team’s current 6-foot-9 captain, Zdeno Chara, who epitomizes the tried-and-true phrase “tough to play against.”
But it would be difficult to come up with a tougher Bruins player than Hall of Fame power forward Cam Neely. Not only was he a menacing winger who could humble opponents with his fists or his shooting touch, but he was the toughest of opponents with the controlled rage that always colored his game Black and Gold. He essentially became the NHL’s version of the boogey man to cheap shot artists and shift disturbers like Claude Lemieux and Ulf Samuelsson.
That led to the moment that proved Neely’s toughness beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Samuelsson caught Neely with a brutal leg check in Game 3 of the 1991 conference finals that shifted the tide of that playoff series and forever changed the punishing winger’s career. Neely played in just 22 games over the next two seasons while gritting through leg, thigh, knee and hip pain.
Neely was eventually forced to retire prematurely because of lower body issues related to the Samuelsson hit, he also proved in one magical season just how tough he was, both mentally and physically. Somehow the current Bruins president did the unthinkable in 1993-94, scoring 50 goals in 49 games. He was essentially skating on one leg, and his dominant, eye-popping production proved his pain tolerance threshold was even beyond what even the most ardent B’s backer could have possibly imagined.
Nothing is tougher as a pro athlete than pushing forward when every stride elicits shockwaves of discomfort. Neely went on to pot 53 goals in 91 games over the next two seasons while never playing as many as 50 regular-season games in either one. Neely persevered through all manner of pain in those final few years as his lower body gave out on him. He eventually succumbed to chronic hip problems following the 1995-96 season, but his career could have realistically ended five years earlier following Samuelsson’s filthy hit.
Nobody beside Neely himself knows what he had to fight through in order to hang on for that long. But we can all agree that it’s all kinds of tough.