By MARTY KLINKENBERG
Wednesday, April 10, 2019
CALGARY -- Failures of the past haunt James Neal.
Teams he has played for have lost in the NHL playoffs eight straight years. In each of the past two Stanley Cup finals he was on the losing side.
"It is hard to explain how heartbreaking it is to go all the way and lose," Neal says Tuesday as he sits in front of his dressing stall at Scotiabank Saddledome.
"The winners have a great summer.
The losers go home and pretty much do nothing. It is really tough, especially when it happens in back-to-back seasons." Neal begins another quest on Thursday as a member of the Calgary Flames.
He signed a long-term contract with them last July and is now girding himself for the opening game of their firstround playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche. No player on either side has as much postseason experience as Neal. He has participated in 100 playoff games.
His last was a Game 5 defeat as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights last June. The first-year team's season was so remarkable that the thought they would lose to the Washington Capitals in the finals never occurred to him.
"It was kind of shocking," Neal says.
"The first person I saw afterward was my mom and she was in tears. Every kid dreams and talks about winning the Stanley Cup and for some of us it truly is a goal."
Neal, 31, grew up in Whitby, Ont., as the oldest of five siblings. He and his three brothers and sister played hockey on a rink their father flooded in the driveway and front yard.
"The pizza guy wasn't getting to the house without skates," Neal says.
He started playing minor hockey in Whitby, and after his midget season was selected by the Plymouth Whalers in the 2003 Ontario Hockey League draft.
He was drafted by Dallas two years later and jumped to the NHL with the Stars in 2008 after a stint playing in the American Hockey League. He was traded to the Penguins in 2010 and to the Predators in 2014 before being chosen by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft.
Neal scored the Golden Knights' only two goals in their season-opening victory, and then the winners in their next two games. He went on to score 25 goals and help them make an improbable playoff run in their initial season.
"Nobody in hockey expected it, but the bottom line was that we had good players," Neal says. "Some guys had problems with previous coaches or organizations and it helped us come together as a tight group. It was fun proving people wrong every night.
"It is something I will never forget."
Neal left Las Vegas after one year and signed a five-year deal with the Flames in July at US$5.75million a year. It was an expensive contract but one worthy of a winger who had scored 21 or more goals for 10 straight years. In his best season, with Pittsburgh in 2012, he had 40.
Calgary went on to have its second-best season in franchise history, but Neal struggled for the first time in his career. He suffered a lowerbody injury and ended up with only seven goals and 12 assists in 63 games. He had two goals and two assists in the past five, however, and is beginning to feel like his old self again.
"Sometimes you change teams and have a tough time adjusting," he says. "You struggle getting used to playing with different players and in different roles and I think it was a combination of those things for me.
"I have struggled, but now I kind of have a chance to redeem myself."
The Flames have had spirited practices in the first two days of this week, with lots of whooping and hollering. Sticks are being tapped against the board when players score. Neal contributed by wristing two crisp shots past goalie Mike Smith on Tuesday.
"This team is built well, and that is why I signed here," Neal says. "I want to win. Everybody is fine-tuning things and fixing their gear and getting ready. The playoffs are different with every team.
"That's what makes it so exciting for me.
There is a clean slate. I want to prove myself again." 2003 After playing minor hockey in Whitby, Ont., James Neal was selected by the Plymouth Whalers in the 2003 Ontario Hockey League draft.
$5.75m Neal was chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion draft, but he left after a year. In July, he signed a five-year deal with the Calgary Flames for US$5.75-million a year.
James Neal says the Calgary Flames are 'built well,' and that's why he signed with them. 'I want to win. Everybody is fine-tuning things and fixing their gear and getting ready. The playoffs are different with every team. That's what makes it so exciting for me,' he added.
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