More than halfway into his first practice since retiring from the Boston Bruins in 1996, Cam Neely received the puck and took a shot on net.
No matter that the puck hit the crossbar. Or that Neely breathed heavily, weighed more and skated slower than in years past.
Cam Neely was back on the ice and that was enough.
Two years after the four-time NHL All-Star prematurely retired from the game at 31, after scoring 395 goals and 299 assists in a 13-year-career, Neely was on the ice with his old team Wednesday seeing if he could overcome the degenerative hip condition that sidelined his career.
So far, so good.
"I wish that my lungs felt as good as my hip," he said after leaving the ice at the Ristuccia Center.
He always wondered if he could come back. After the 45-minute practice session, Neely recalled how the pain was once so unbearable he couldn't sleep.
Neely's return follows intensive work with a physical therapist who is helping to lengthen the muscles and tendons around his hip and break down some of the scar tissue surrounding the hip socket.
The rink was filled with media and teammates excited about Neely's possible comeback.
Bruins veteran Ray Bourque, one of three remaining players who played with Neely, said that he was watching the 1988 playoff tapes featuring Neely "scoring all over the place" when Neely called Tuesday to tell him of his return.
"I feel this is important for him to try," Bourque said. "The way he went out wasn't the way he wanted to. ... If it works out for him, it's going to be a big bonus for everybody."
Young players who never skated with Neely, like 19-year-old Joe Thornton, thBruins' 1997 first-round draft pick, are looking forward to playing with the star.
"I grew up watching highlights of him on television," Thornton said.
In the 10 seasons he played for the Bruins, it was hard to miss Neely, who was as much of a presence in front of the net as he was in the community.
Neely helped to create the Cam Neely Foundation at the New England Medical Center, a home for families of patients with cancer. The disease killed Neely's parents.
While playing with an injured knee, Neely scored 50 goals in his first 44 games of 1993-94. Only Wayne Gretzky has scored 50 goals in fewer games.
Neely said he is not concerned about his stick and shooting skills coming back. It's a view shared by Bruins president and general manager Harry Sinden.
"He hasn't lost anything off his shot and he's handling the puck well," Sinden said. "Obviously, his conditioning is light years behind where it has to be."
Which is a good sign. Neely can improve his conditioning, but his hip could keep him off the ice forever.
If Neely does return, Sinden said, the team would have to negotiate a new contract. But Sinden said that is far away for now.
"He knows it's a long shot, and I do, too," Sinden said.
Since retiring, Neely has written a book, "Hockey For Everybody" and has worked for a financial printing firm.
Neely also became a father. His wife, Paulina, gave birth to their first child, Jack Cameron, last week.
Neely hopes to play for 45 minutes a day over 10 days to gauge how he feels. He said he doesn't want to overdo it and jeopardize his health.
"I'm not going to go through the pain like last time," he said. "If I last four days in a row and my hip's barking at me, then that's all she wrote."
"I still really do consider myself a retired hockey player. This last year I have really been at peace with that."
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