Upon hearing the news, I was struck with a pang of sadness and regret. Chris Neil was the last player remaining from what I consider "The Senators of yore" - the team I cheered for in my teens and early adult years that consistently made the playoffs, two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, and one kick at the Stanley Cup. Despite this past season of success and making the Conference Finals for the first time in 10 years, I consider those my "Glory Years" as a Sens fan. And Chris Neil was a big part of that.
Sidenote: Remember when I said this current group of Senators and their awesome playoff run had turned me back into a diehard fan? Well, life was much easier when I was NOT. I mean, sure, I still would have been sad to hear that Chris Neil was leaving no matter what, but the offseason is one of turmoil and anxiety for diehard fans. I'm even worrying about Dion Phaneuf. DION PHANEUF! Imagine! *sigh*
Anyways. Back to Neiler. This guy has been a life-long Senator. He has played 1026 games for the red, black & gold. He has been a huge part of the community, and a fan favourite for his 16 seasons here.
He's also one of the very few Ottawa Senators players I've met in person.
I will always remember that night back in November 2011, out for Krista's Bachelorette Party in the city, and our first stop at the Crazy Horse in Kanata. I wasn't wearing my glasses, so I hadn't noticed that one of the guys sitting at a table across the room was someone I should have recognized very quickly. Luckily, there were other girls in the group who had scoped him out, and quickly word spread that Chris Neil was in the house.
Several of the girls, including the bride-to-be, had approached him, and word on the street was that he wasn't in the most friendly mood that evening. I had made up my mind I was going nowhere near him - I didn't want to be one of "those" fans - but Krista was having none of that. After trying to convince me to go up and say hi several times, she finally grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me across the room, pushing everyone in our path out of the way, loudly declaring, "Excuse me Chris Neil, this is my friend Jillian and she's the biggest Sens fan I know, will you pleeeeeeeease get up and take a picture with her??"
Dude was not impressed. He had to make his buddies shuffle out of the booth they were sitting in to get out (probably strategic, to avoid moments like this), plus he also had a bum ankle (the reason he wasn't in Vancouver with the rest of the team that night). Everyone knows "celebrities" don't like being bothered by fans when they're out, just trying to have dinner or a few drinks with their friends, and I truly was very sorry that he was basically being forced into a photo op with me. But hey, it was a Bachelorette party. Did he really think a bunch of Pontiac girls were going to notice him and turn a blind eye? pfffft.
I had met my all-time favourite player Wade Redden ten years prior to this, and literally became a dumb mute the moment I got near him. He asked me questions, and I could not speak. Literally could not. Years later, after he was out of the NHL, I spotted him at the Bayshore shopping center, and creepily stalked him from a distance by snapping blurry far-away photos of him while he was in line at Booster Juice.
So I was proud that this time, with Chris Neil, I found my tongue. Although all I recall saying, over and over, was, "I'm sorry, Chris Neil. I'm so sorry."
To Chris Neil's credit, he chippered up once he got up and ready for the photo. As I kept repeating apologies to him over and over, he chuckled, and reassured me it was no big deal. He smiled for the camera, and I remember putting my hand on his back and literally being in heaven.
SO glad Krista made me go over there for that picture.
Fast-forward to this past season. It was a delight to be invited to a Sens game by my friend Sharon one night in December, as she had scored tickets to a game that turned out to be the celebration of Chris Neil's 1000th game in a Sens uniform. Quite an accomplishment, and I was thrilled to be there for the pre-game ceremony honouring him and celebrating his milestone occasion. A Senator to be proud of, and extra-special in my books because of that night when he so graciously - though he really didn't want to - got up from his meal and drinks with his buddies, and took a picture with a desperately apologetic fan.
Last night, when I got home from work, I went to throw my sweater on the armchair just inside my living room, and realized I still had the Chris Neil 1000th game towel draped across the arm of the chair, exactly where I had left it the night we got home from that game. My heart gave an extra little squeeze.
I wish he could have retired here, but totally understand his desire to play the game he loves, which is something the Sens could no longer offer him. I hope he will find a team that will allow him to do just that, and I wish him all the success in the world.
Cheers to #25. One of the very best.