By Larry Wigge
He stood there, head set on a swivel making sure he did not miss anything. He was at the All-Star Game in Montreal in late January of 2009.
James Neal was in the Western Conference locker room. Sort of. Actually, there were so many players on the visitors side that he didn't have a locker. Neal's position in the room was near a pole. He had a metal chair to sit on ... and his nameplate was written on paper and was fastened to pole.
Around him where Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf, Scott Niedermayer, Roberto Luongo, Shane Doan, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Mike Modano, who was his teammate with the Dallas Stars.
It didn't matter Neal. He was a still a part of the All-Star Game festivities.
While he looked in awe, this Whitby, Ontario, native, had scored just 13 goals for the Stars in his rookie career. He was part of the YoungStars in the Montreal.
"I don't know what to say ... or who to say it too," said the 22-year-old Neal. "I'm just going to soak up all of the action."
That self-proclaimed confidence is why they call James Neal, "The Real Deal."
Playing with a power forward's girth at 6-2, 208-pounds, Neal has the skills to go along with it. Good shot. Nose for the net. He battles hard and competes at a high pace. He finishes around the net with his stick ... and his grit. All of the intangibles made him a second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
Neal finished out his rookie season with Dallas with 24 goals. He had another 21 goals after 59 games, when got the news that he had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins by Dallas with defenseman Matt Niskanen in exchange of Alex Goliogoski.
"As a forward, we've really liked what we see in James," Penguins GM Ray Shero said at the time of the deal. "He's at the top of our list for any young power forward in the League."
But, Neal admits he probably tried to do too much when he first arrived in Pittsburgh. He finished with just one goal in 20 games for the Penguins.
"Any time you come to a new team you have high expectations for yourself," he said. "I just wanted to come in, show them what I could do. I had some good games ... had some bad games. It was up and down but at the end of the day. You do try too hard, try to do things that push you over the edge. It's like doing more when you should do less.
"You get a call at practice and your whole life is upside down in seconds. The next thing you know, you're on a plane and in a hotel room in a different city. You have to leave your team. You have to leave your friends."
Neal's first trade. It's something he'll never forget it. But ...
Never to look a gift horse in the mouth, James could think of how he might be on a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin, by the way, was the winner of the shooting accuracy contest at the 2009 All-Star Game.
"When I'm playing with that confidence, playing with that attitude, you can visualize," Neal said. "When you get the puck, you know exactly where you want to put it. You do it before the game, too. I try to visualize all different kinds of shots, angles, you name it."
And they all go in? Don't they.
"That's the thing," he added with a grin. "And once I have that visualization when I'm on the ice, I just try to get the shot off quickly."
Playing with Malkin has been shall we say eye-opening for Neal.
"Playing with Geno ... has been amazing," said Neal. "He finds you anywhere. It's almost like he's got a vision ... making some great passes -- like he's got eyes in the back of his head."
That brings us to the present. Neal collected 40 goals on a wing with Malkin in the 2011-12 season, the first full season as linemates. This season, he's got four goals in five games.
Still, wiring those great passes by opposing goaltenders -- like the cross-ice pass to Neal, who one-timed a rocket past Craig Anderson's glove hand at 13:31 in the first period. Neal, Crosby and Malkin all beat Anderson in the shootout for a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory over Ottawa.
After the game, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Neal is always dangerous.
"James is dangerous from anywhere," Bylsma said. "That goal tonight, he gets a sliver of an opportunity to get that shot off. I think you could teach a lesson with getting open and releasing just from what we've seen this year from James.
"James scores goals. He's got a great shot. He's a faster skater. He's a hard skater to the net."
"His wrist shot is probably the most best in I've seen," said teammate Pascal Dupuis.
Said Neal, "I just try to bring a physical aspect, I think I can put the puck in the net and be good around the net -- and be physical and play hard every shift."
It won't be 40 goals gain for Neal this year, not with the 48-game compressed schedule. What would James consider such a step?
"To me, I feel like my next level is just a constant learning process of being with players like Sid and Geno," he said. "That helps, hopefully, not only to get to the next level faster but to want to be there. When you're around those guys every day, playing with them ... you enjoy it, you know?
"I want to elevate my game to that next level, try to be an elite player, be a top player on this team that has a lot of great players. I'm in a great spot. You learn to feed off guys in this dressing room -- it's fun to be a part of."
Neal's father, Peter, coached him for the major part of his minor hockey. Peter is a real estate agent. His mom, Debra, runs the house. James has three younger brothers (Michael, Peter, and Nicholas) and one younger sister (Rebecca). Michael, plays in the Dallas organization was drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall, in 2007.
"He put a puck through his garage door," said Peter, who laughed ... and then sort of shook his head at the constant repair of the garage.
Saying he got tired of fixing the whole garage, so, "I used to just fix the hole."
Neal said he learned to be focused from his father. He learned to always be ready to play each shift whistle-to-whistle.
Obstacles? Most players have them. Neal said he was small.
"When I was younger, I was smaller and kind of developed the hands and tried to be a little more skilled, but once I started to grow and get bigger I kind of changed my game into a power forward," Neal said.
He didn't have to worry about being too small for too long. At 16, Neal started working out during the summers with Gary Roberts and Adam Foote.
"Growing up, it was all hockey," Neal recalled. "The fact I had an opportunity to train with guys like Gary Roberts and Adam Foote was as good as it gets. I started training with Roberts when I was 16 by going to his gym in Toronto -- and I got to know him very well.
"When I finished up in Toronto, I started training with Foote, who lived right around the corner from me in Whitby."
When you start to name how James Neal got the the NHL, it's easy to mention each step he took.
What you really take from this is that James Neal is, "The Real Deal."