Two runs to the cup a mo­ti­va­tor for Neal

Two runs to Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal mo­ti­vates Flames’ ac­qui­si­tion, writes Wes Gil­bert­son.

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - wgilbert­son@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/WesGil­bert­son

SHEN­ZHEN, CHINA This sort of sting doesn’t fade quickly. Or easily.

In back-to-back springs, James Neal has skated in the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal.

For the Cal­gary Flames’ prized free agent ad­di­tion, both runs have ended in heart­break.

“It’s hard, it re­ally is. There is no beat­ing around the bush, los­ing sucks, es­pe­cially when you’re that close,” Neal said. “And the last two years, it was on home ice. In your barn, and they’re skat­ing around with the Stan­ley Cup and you’re sit­ting in your dress­ing room.

“It’s tough. I guess you have to try to take what you can from it, make your­self stronger and try not to let it hap­pen again. You want to come out on the other side. I have that drive to win. I want to win sooooo bad. I’ll do what­ever I can to get there again, and hope­fully come out on the win­ning end of it.”

We are, of course, at the very be­gin­ning of a new sea­son, months and months from the win­ning (or los­ing) end of it.

Fri­day’s fast-paced prac­tice at Shen­zhen Univer­si­ade Sports Cen­ter marked Neal’s first of­fi­cial spin in the Flam­ing C logo.

For Satur­day’s ex­hi­bi­tion opener against the Bos­ton Bru­ins, the 31-year-old right-winger — wear­ing No. 18 — is slated to skate along­side Mikael Back­lund and Matthew Tkachuk.

Flames fans have been en­vi­sion­ing Neal — signed this sum­mer to a five-year doozy of a con­tract worth US$5.75-mil­lion per sea­son — as the ideal lamp­light­ing com­padre for Johnny Gau­dreau and Sean Mon­a­han on Cal­gary’s top line, and he will cer­tainly au­di­tion in that spot. (Trade ac­qui­si­tion Elias Lind­holm gets the first crack, in part be­cause Mon­a­han’s face­off work will be lim­ited dur­ing the pre­sea­son as he re­cov­ers from wrist surgery.)

“The first thing is, it’s just a great group,” Neal said Fri­day, siz­ing up his new crew. “Com­ing into a locker-room, when­ever you go to a new team, you al­ways say, ‘It’s a great group of guys.’ But it re­ally is. And I get the sense they re­ally want to win. They weren’t sat­is­fied last year with the way things ended up.

“There’s been a lot of change here — a lot of new play­ers, new faces, trades and then a new coach­ing staff. So a lot of change, but good change. We’re ex­cited to get on the ice and start build­ing a team and start build­ing be­lief in our­selves and in each other that we can win.

“I mean, ev­ery sin­gle team is go­ing to come into camp and go into their first game talk­ing in their video room, say­ing they’re go­ing to win a Stan­ley Cup and they’ve got the team to do it. For us, I think we have those guys. I think we have the game-break­ers you need to win. I think we have the goal­tend­ing you need to win, and we’re solid de­fen­sively.

“When you have all that to­gether, you just need to build a be­lief in each other and in your­self that you can go out there and win ev­ery game.”

One of the NHL’s most con­sis­tent scor­ing threats over the past decade, Neal has won a lot of hockey games.

He wants des­per­ately to win the last one.

Two years back, while bulging twine on be­half of the Nashville Preda­tors, Neal came oh-so-close to get­ting his hands on hockey’s biggest prize. Instead, his former Pitts­burgh Pen­guins teammates pulled off a cham­pi­onship re­peat.

Last spring, he was again on the som­bre side of the hand­shake line, with his Ve­gas Golden Knights fall­ing just short of a fairy tale end­ing against the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals. Alex Ovechkin’s epic party started that night in Sin City.

At his re­tire­ment shindig this sum­mer, Flames leg­end Jarome Iginla ad­mit­ted he still feels the pain of his close call in 2004.

So no­body would ex­pect Cal­gary’s net-fill­ing new­comer to be over his agony al­ready.

“You work so hard to get to that point, and you never know when it’s go­ing to hap­pen again,” Neal said. “You want to try to en­joy it and want to try to take ev­ery­thing you can from it, which I did. But it just gives you that bite, that feel­ing that you want to win again, that you want to do some­thing spe­cial. That went into why I wanted to come (to the Flames). I think this is a team that is right there.”

This once-in-a-life­time trip is merely the start of a lengthy quest, but it’s worth not­ing the Stan­ley Cup is in China for pro­mo­tional pur­poses.

Neal still doesn’t have his name on it, and he’s hell-bent on chang­ing that.

“Ob­vi­ously, we all know James can score. He’s proven that,” said Flames net­min­der Mike Smith, whose good pal ar­rives at the Sad­dle­dome with 263 goals on his ca­reer re­sume. “But I think he’s hun­gry to win. I think he brings that lead­er­ship as­pect of it and a guy that has been around win­ning for a big part of his ca­reer. I think he’s just got that mojo about him that he re­ally wants to win. He’s been to a cou­ple fi­nals now, two years in a row, so I think he re­ally wants to get over that hump.

“And just be­ing around him, you know what kind of guy he is, what kind of per­son he is. It’s a con­ta­gious thing when you’re around win­ners, so I think bring­ing in a guy like Nealer is a big thing for our team.”

DAR­REN MAKOWICHUK

The Flames are count­ing on free agent signee James Neal, shown here hav­ing fun at the re­cent Flames Celebrity Char­ity Golf Clas­sic, to pro­vide an of­fen­sive spark, ei­ther play­ing on the top line with Johnny Gau­dreau and Sean Mon­a­han, or adding scor­ing depth else­where.

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