But we’ll never know how much greater he would’ve been had he not been struck down by no fewer than two cheap hits by Pittsburgh Penguins agitator Ulf Samuelsson during a Bruins-Penguins playoff series in 1991 when Neely was just 25.
Neely looked back at the initial injury, his subsequent health problems and his eventual return to form during an interview on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast this week.
“Obviously a lot has changed from when I was playing as far as treatments and recovery and rest. But it just started a snowball effect, because … it was such a hard hit that part of my quad solidified, starting turning into bone, so they had to treat it like a broken bone. So I was in a straight-leg brace for two months. But the problem was I wasn’t on crutches, I was just walking normally but with a limp. So I think walking like that for two months without being able to bend my knee, it created a problem in my knee.
“When I came back in early January – this happened in May in the playoffs and I didn’t come back until early January – we played in Toronto one night and we’re coming back home to play Montreal the next night, I woke up from the game in Toronto, my knee was blown up. No pain, I don’t know what I did, there was no pain associated with it, it was just full of fluid.”
Neely had played just nine games in 1991-92 when the doctors scoped his knee to see what was going on. When Neely came to, he recalled, the doctor said, “Your season’s over and I’m concerned about your career.”
As Neely explained, there was a dime-sized piece of joint surface cartilage on the end of his femur in knee that was torn and the doctors had to drill holes in his femur to create some blood that would hopefully create this fibral cartilage.
The recovery might’ve been worse than the procedure.
“I then had to be in this continuous passive motion machine for three weeks for 23 hours a day,” Neely explained. “It was unbelievable. But I was like ‘I’ll do whatever you guys say I have to do to get back.”
After playing just 13 games in 1992-93 Neely had a somewhat triumphant return in 1993-94, when he scored 50 goals in 49 games. He scored 53 goals in 91 games the next two seasons before retiring at 30.
“I lived in the training room, which sucked,” Neely said. “Just a lot to get out there to play the games, but as a player you’ll do whatever you have to do to get out there, right.”
Samuelsson has remained in hockey in various roles at the NHL and amateur levels and Neely has been in the Bruins front office for more than a decade. But Neely and Samuelsson have never commiserated over the incidents that changed the trajectory of Neely’s career.
“I’ve never really bumped into him to have a conversation,” Neely said.