The Interview: Cam Neely
The Bruins president and hometown hero dislikes interviews and avoids them at all costs, but that doesn’t stop him from opening up to us about his life on and off the ice after more than 30 years in Boston. —By Emily Kumler
Walk into his office at TD Garden, and one thing becomes crystal clear: “Bam-Bam Cam” Neely isn’t much for decorating. It’s been nearly eight years since the Bruins’ legendary tough guy became team president, yet stacks of unhung artwork remain piled on the floor as if it’s still his first week on the job. So if feng shui isn’t on his mind, what is? Over the course of an hour, Neely opened up about the dirty hit that derailed his storied career, his memorable cameo in Dumb and Dumber, and why working in the front office today is far more stressful than any season on the ice.
You and I first met at a wedding. You were the officiant, but it seemed like you would have rather been hiding behind a nearby tree. Do you get nervous when it comes to public speaking?
Yes. It can be nerve-racking. And obviously I didn’t want it to be about who was actually marrying them. It was their day, and I wanted it to be about them.
Did you get nervous when you were on the ice in front of thousands of screaming fans?
No. No. It’s so strange. I’ve played hockey in front of 20,000 people—no problem. But I’ve played in some pro-am golf tournaments, and there were maybe a couple hundred people lining the fairways and I was nervous as hell.
Really? What’s that about?
Just out of my element. When you’re in your element as a professional athlete, you’re used to people watching. With the pace of hockey, you don’t even really notice it. Sure, if the first time someone played was in front of 20,000 people, they’d freak out. But you build up to that throughout your career and it becomes more natural.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done with a hockey stick?
[Laughs.] We have this second fridge in our house and one of the racks broke. So I found an old stick, cut it, and taped it in there. That’s the extent of my handyman capabilities.
What’s the craziest thing a fan has done?
I get “Sea Bass” a lot. People yell, “Hey, Sea Bass.”
I was going to ask you about that. When the Farrelly brothers asked you to be in Dumb and Dumber, did you know what you were getting into?
No. I had no idea. It’s one of those movies that has a cult following. It’s been 20-some-odd years now. People that don’t even know I played hockey know that I was Sea Bass.
You’ve been president of the Bruins since 2010. How has life in the front office changed your perspective on the game?
I still think like a player when I talk to the players. When I broke into the league, there wasn’t a lot of communication. You didn’t really talk to the general manager all that often. The coach would tell you things, but there really wasn’t a lot of communication. For me, I just think the more discussions you have with players, everyone feels invested. We’re trying to build a team. If everyone is in a silo, you are not going to have the success that you probably could.
An old teammate of yours, Don Sweeney, is in the Bruins front office with you as GM. Do you keep old highlight reels playing on a loop up here?
[Laughs.] No, those days are over. That’s history.
As a player, was there a go-to song or band that would get you pumped up before games?
I remember when I was in Vancouver, I roomed with our goalie, Frank Caprice, and he was a big Van Halen fan. This was the early ’80s. When we’d drive to the rink, he would be cranking Van Halen.
You’ve said that you were traded to Boston because you didn’t get enough ice time in Vancouver, so the coach there couldn’t see your potential. How much of success is really just about opportunity?
My final year in Vancouver I played less than my first year there, and it was also my third different coach. I was your typical young player who made mistakes. I understand this. It’s frustrating to coaches at times when you make mistakes. It’s just that learning process—you either have the patience or not with the players. So opportunity is very key. If you’re given the opportunity and can’t do it, that’s because you maybe don’t have the skill set to do it. If you have the skill set but don’t have the opportunity, how will we ever know?
Does your glamorous wife, Paulina, pick out what you wear, or do you go shopping together? How does that happen?
I hate shopping. I hate it. Paulina finds things that she’d like me to wear. They usually end up in my closet. Sometimes I prefer comfort over style.
Do you have a favorite shop in Boston?
I like Alan Bilzerian.
You seem like a very calm person. Do you ever get pissed off? What does that look like?
I’ll swear a lot and become animated.
What makes you mad?
I don’t like to lose. There’s that. I hate losing more than I like winning. And some drivers make me upset.
Commuting [gestures out his office window, which looks over I-93]. But I’m probably one of those drivers that piss people off, too.
If you’d never played hockey, what would you have ended up doing with your life?
Petroleum distributor. It was one of my last jobs before playing hockey. I was pumping gas.
What are your interests outside of hockey?
I’ve met a number of people in the years I’ve been in Boston who have become friends of mine who are in venture capital or run VC funds. It’s interesting to see how they have learned, or looked at startup companies, or decided which companies they want to invest in and why they think they are going to be successful. I like to sit and listen and maybe ask some questions about their success stories.
Do you do any day trading?
No, I do not. When I first retired, I used to watch the markets all the time. I never got to the point, though, of where I felt like it was what I wanted to do.
In the 1993–94 season you scored your 50th goal in your 44th game—unofficially, because it was the team’s 66th game. That’s super impressive. How did it happen?
It was a crazy year. Everything I put on the ice seemed to find its way in. I wasn’t playing every game. I was playing every other game because of a sore knee. It just was a very magical season. I played with some pretty good players who certainly made it possible.
Did you have any superstitious beliefs during that season?
No. But I got hurt in my 49th game. I got hit and tore my MCL right near the end of the year. It was probably the most devastated I was as an athlete. I was coming back from other injuries and was having this magical year. Our team, I thought, was competitive, and we were trying to go deep into the playoffs, and then I was out of the picture. That was the most difficult time for me professionally, when I got hurt.
That sounds awful. How did you recover?
After feeling sorry for myself for a couple of days, I realized I just had to pick myself back up and start focusing on getting better.
Can we talk about Pittsburgh’s Ulf Samuelsson and the infamous hit he put on your knee during the 1991 playoffs? You must have had a lot of people who wanted to get revenge on your behalf.
I believe I did.
Did you ever have any conversation with Samuelsson about that hit?
He never apologized?
I never really crossed paths with him other than when we played. In today’s game, it’s a little different being able to connect with people.
What do you mean?
Everyone’s got a cell phone. Now you hear all the time where somebody hurt someone else and they feel bad about it, and they’ll say, “I texted and apologized to him.”
Did you ever feel like you should apologize to anyone?
No [grins ear to ear].
It’s just not part of the game?
No. I’ve hurt some people along the way. But the thinking was that this is where the big boys play the game, and you know what the consequences could be.
Was there one player or goalie over the course of your career that you just dreaded going up against?
I had a tough time with Grant Fuhr. Marty Brodeur was also difficult. Those two goalies, off the top of my head. Then Scott Stevens, the defenseman, you knew you were in for a tough night with him.
Let’s go back to your incredible season. Wayne Gretzky is the only player who reached 50 goals in fewer games. Were you guys friendly, or did he ever reach out to congratulate you?
No. You know, you watch other people’s success from afar. When someone is having a great year, you watch it from afar. I probably got to know Wayne more so after my career than during it. The thing is, nobody really knows how difficult it is to perform at that level. No matter the era, there’s a level that nearly everyone aspires to be at. And then there is a level that a rare few play at, whether it’s for a single season or the course of a career. But when you are at that level, it’s not easy.
What, in particular, is hard about it?
The game itself. People that you’re playing against want to win just as much as you. They want to stop you from doing your job.
If I said Wayne Gretzky is a unicorn, then Cam Neely is a—fill in the blank. What would it be?
Good question. I don’t know. Bull, maybe? I was not a fancy player. I was north–south. I was just as likely to go through you as try to go around you.
Do you ever jump on ponds for some pickup games?
I haven’t in a while. A friend of mine had an outdoor rink and I’d skate a few times on that. I haven’t really skated in a while. The last time I was on the ice was the Winter Classic at Gillette a couple of years ago.
Do you miss it?
I do. It’s funny, you get out there and you think you can do what you did 20 years ago, but then it’s not happening.
What’s tougher: a season on the ice or a season in the front office?
Mentally, in the office. There’s no question. When you’re a player, you think you can make an impact that day, maybe the next shift, maybe the next period. In this position, a lot of decisions are made and you have to wait to see if they work out. Patience plays a big part. That’s what I’ve had to learn.
Imagine you’re on your deathbed. Is there a game or situation you might reflect on, or something you’re really proud of?
The charitable foundation, the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care, that I started in memory of my parents. I think of how many cancer patients and families we’ve been able to help because of what I did for a living. If I didn’t do that for a living, I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to give back like that. That, to me, is pretty special—to be able to do something that came out of something terrible.
Comedian Denis Leary is a big supporter of the foundation and does his Comics Come Home event every year to help raise money for it. Is he as off color off the stage as he is on it?
Not like that, no. There’s no question he’s got that little bit of darkness in him that’s funny. When I first got to Boston, I preferred to go to comedy clubs as opposed to movies. That’s how I liked to kill time if I had a night off. So I got to know Lenny Clarke’s brother, Mike Clarke, who ran a couple of comedy clubs. And I asked Mike if Denis was going to do a show or if he was coming to Boston. He said no, but he’s doing a benefit show in Worcester. Long story short: We were introduced there and became friends. I asked him, at some point, if he would do a benefit show for my foundation. He took the ball and ran with it and created Comics Come Home.
Did you know the event would get as big as it is now?
At first I was thinking it was going to be one comedian, Denis, and he would do an hour and we’d raise some money. But he came up with this concept of inviting other comedians who had ties to Boston. I can’t believe it. It has been 23 years and it’s amazing. We started at the Orpheum. Outgrew that and went to the Agganis. Outgrew that, and now we are here. I think we had 10,000 people last year.
Well, looks like our time is almost up. Anything inappropriate that you can tell me before we finish?
There are a lot of inappropriate things, but nothing I will tell you.