Friday, November 09, 2007


Michael Neal-Learning the Ropes

Michael Neal has learned a valuable and very necessary lesson this year as a member of the Belleville Bulls-patience. But not something he really wanted to learn.

Entering his third year as a Bull, he spent the summer preparing for the season. He ran, he lifted weights, he skated, he worked out. He established himself as a ferocious hitter last year, and wanted to continue to assert himself physically this season.

At one point in the summer, he spent a week in Dallas at their conditioning camp. “It was first class,” he told me in a recent interview. Not too strenuous.”

He worked under the watchful eye of Coach Dave Tippett and GM Doug Armstrong. Brett Hull also wandered in and out of the facility. Two current Stars, Brendan Morrow and Trevor Daley also worked out there.

As a Dallas draft pick, Michael knows that their eyes are upon him. All draftees realize the importance of showing their best. After all, they are not under contract until they sign on the dotted line. But they cannot align themselves nor affiliate with any other NHL team. Michael Neal is in the Dallas camp, as is his older brother James.

All players that are under the Dallas umbrella went to Frisco, Texas, just outside Dallas, for further evaluation. The rink there is occupied during the season by a Junior “A” franchise. Attached to the facility is a full-sized indoor football stadium. Players were put through their paces on the field. “We had to run in competitions.”

When asked how well he fared, he begrudgingly admitted, “Well, I never like to admit it, but my brother beat me. He is, after all, two years older than I am. But I will keep working at it. There will come a day when I will catch him.”

Michael Neal does not consider himself to be a well-rounded athlete. “I began playing hockey at an early age. I joined the “AAA” program in Whitby at the lowest level. My Dad was the coach. From that time on, I played “AAA” hockey every year. I didn’t really have a lot of time for other sports. A towering six feet, four or five, he was never attracted to basketball. “Not my game,” he admitted.

He shared the transportation routes with his three brothers who all are involved in hockey at higher levels. James is currently with the Stars’ American League affiliate in Iowa. His younger brother Peter was drafted by the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers in the 12th round.

Michael’s father is also involved as a part owner with the Bowmanville Eagles of the Ontario Provincial “A” League. Michael vividly recalled the game seven against the Wellington Dukes in the 2003 playoffs when the Eagles won in the DukeDome. “I screamed so loudly I couldn’t even talk the next day.” I told him I wasn’t interested. (As the vice-president of the Dukes, and the announcer at that game, I still feel the pain.)

Near the end of the summer, at the Bulls’ pre-season training camp, he tweaked his knee in a rather innocuous contact. The training staff, the coaching staff, and Michael himself exercised caution.

He then headed to Traverse City south of the border to the NHL prospects camp. Hundreds of would-be professional hockey players, amassed at one location, under the watchful eyes of scouts and executives.

He roomed with John Lammers who is currently with the Dallas minor league team in Idaho, the Steelheads. Other Dallas prospects from the minor leagues and draftees played together.

As can be expected in this situation, Neal felt the pressure to do his best. “I knew I had to impress them. I did tell them before I got to the camp that I had hurt my knee. An orthopaedic surgeon from one of the NHL teams had a look at it and suggested that I ice it, but that I could play easily on it.

I put on my gear. I skated, slowly at first. I found that the more I skated, the worse it felt. I thought I could get through it. But once I started doing crossovers and quick turns, it was really painful. I knew I didn’t look my best.

I iced it three or four times a day. It started to feel better and the swelling eased. I so much wanted to show them what I could do. And even near the last day, it didn’t feel too bad.”

But once he returned to Belleville, he knew something was seriously wrong. There was only one decision to make. He went “under the knife”. He had serious knee surgery. His season was done. For an eighteen year old on the cusp of an exciting career, truly heartbreaking.

Michael is fighting back. He works every day on his upper body strength, critical for young bucks trying to make the grade at NHL camps. He has begun exercising his legs on the bike. It will be some time before he can get back on the blades. But he is determined, and he is receiving excellent care.

He would like to follow in the footsteps of his favourite NHL players-the Primeau brothers, and Adam Foote , the Whitby graduate who has excelled in the NHL. “He has taught me to train like a pro. I have learned what it takes from him.”

There will come a day when we will see Michael Neal back on the ice with the Belleville Bulls. It will bring a smile to the lips of the coaching staff. But it will also widen the eyes of his opponents as they cruise through centre looking for errant passes. The message will be clear. Though unspoken, it will say, “I’m back”.

It will be followed by a tremendous crunching sound. None too soon for Michael Neal.

James Hurst
November 9, 2007

Belleville needs a weekly sports show on 1 of the local radio stations.Talk and information on the Bulls.Dukes,Pack,HS sports,minor hockey,stories on players who have moved on,local baseball,etc.With all your connections with in the local sports circles and your knowledge of the games you would make the ideal host.
I have mentioned this idea to Miller(he is to busy) and to several other program people and they seem to think the market(and advertising $,s)isn,t there.I strongly disagree.Pterboro has a Sunday(980AM)sports show and it is very informative.(Petes,JrA.,minor hockey,lacrosse,etc.)In the major markets all sport stations are the norm.
I believe with marketing and info. like you have on this blog the show would succeed perhaps starting as monthly or bi-weekly.
Have you considered being a radio host?
I would do that (act as a radio talkshow host in a minute).

I think the interest is there.

Send me an email in this regard.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?