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Cam Neely's NHL life comes full circle

BOSTON -- We arrived in Cam Neely's office without a birthday gift.

Not that we could have delivered the gift the Boston Bruins' president truly covets.

Neely, who turned 46 on Monday, would like four straight wins with his team trailing Vancouver 2-0 in the Stanley Cup finals, but he'll take one to start.

"Absolutely, I don't ask for much," Neely said of his birthday wish list. "So maybe I'll use them all up right now."

Chatting with Neely in the hours before Game 3, it was hard not to think of Joni Mitchell's "Circle Game" and the way a life's travels often end up to be as circular as straight.

It is so for Neely.

Twenty-five years ago Monday, Neely celebrated his 21st birthday and was traded from the Vancouver Canucks to the Boston Bruins. That he would spend his current birthday preparing for a game against those same Canucks as the Bruins try to win their first Stanley Cup since 1972 tightens the circle even more.

"To play a game on the day I was traded against that team in the finals, it's hard not to reflect," Neely said. "My hopes are the trade worked out. Hopefully this will work out well. I know, it's crazy. It certainly doesn't seem like 25 years, that's for sure. Maybe the joints do, but not mentally."

For both franchises, the Neely trade was something of a seminal moment. The Canucks, looking for an experienced scorer to help them compete against the big guns in the Western Conference such as Edmonton and Calgary, acquired Barry Pederson from the Bruins for Neely and the first pick in the following entry draft. For a time, it looked like that pick might yield the first overall pick of the 1987 draft (that turned out to be Pierre Turgeon), but the Bruins ended up with Glen Wesley with the third overall selection.

The Canucks, meanwhile, would rue the deal for years, as they made just one Stanley Cup finals appearance since and are still searching for their first championship.

On the day of the trade, though, Neely had no inkling his life and the future of two franchises were about to be inexorably changed.

"I was actually working out with some buddies," he recalled. "It was late morning and we were planning on having a barbecue for the birthday and my younger sister tracked me down. It was pre-cellphones and all that, and they couldn't find me."

One of the teams, he can't recall exactly which one, wanted to announce the deal, but they needed to inform Neely first.

"She knew I was working out," Neely said. "She came to the gym, basically told me I was traded and I should call the GM."

Neely knew his third season in Vancouver hadn't been as productive; his goal total dropped from 21 as a sophomore to 14, but his ice time had been cut, so Neely believed there were reasons for the trade.

"It came out of the blue. I wasn't expecting it at all. Never heard anything about possibly being traded, nothing like that," he said. "I wasn't mad. I certainly knew it was part of the game and you get into a professional sport and trades do happen. I was more disappointed, leaving Vancouver. Both my parents weren't well. But then, fortunately, I was raised to think positive and I quickly went from, 'Well, Vancouver doesn't want me' to, 'Oh, Boston does want me.'"

Not that the move wasn't without its apprehensive moments.

"But then I was also like, 'Wait a minute, Boston's a better team than Vancouver,'" Neely recalled. "I was struggling to get ice time in Vancouver, so what was going to happen to my career going to Boston?"

He didn't need to worry. Neely scored 36 goals and added 36 assists in his first season in Boston en route to a Hall of Fame career that would see him become one of the most beloved Boston sports figures.

"Right from training camp, I got put with some of the better players, if you will. I think they really just said, 'OK, let's see what he can do,'" Neely said.

These past days leading up to Neely's birthday and the 25-year anniversary of his trade have been emotional ones for the Bruins' president. He returned to his hometown in Vancouver, but two one-goal losses, the latter just 11 seconds into overtime, blunted the enthusiasm for the homecoming that might otherwise have been the case.

"The circumstances, obviously, losing the way we lost, was not as enjoyable as it might have been," Neely said. "It was nice to be back and see my family and friends and have them come into the games, but it wasn't quite as enjoyable as we'd have liked."

A fiery competitor as a player, Neely the executive isn't all that different. He lives and dies with each play, each goal, each win and loss. He laughed when asked whether this has been hard, watching his team's march to the finals.

"It is. Every year, I go into it saying, 'OK, Cam, control your emotions a little bit better this year,' and it's difficult for me to do it," Neely said. "I try my best to do it, but I'm a pretty emotional guy to begin with, so it's harder for me than maybe some other guys to do that.

"I am who I am I guess."