His father built a rink in his backyard and that was the beginning of a seven-decade love affair with hockey.
Harry Neale has spent his life in the game, as a player, coach and broadcaster.
Today he will be honored with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to hockey broadcasting and recognition in the Hockey Hall of Fame at a luncheon in Toronto.
Also to be honored will be veteran hockey writer Jay Greenberg, who will receive the Elmer Ferguson Award for excellence in hockey journalism. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s class of 2013, which will be inducted tonight, is Chris Chelios, Geraldine Heaney, Scott Niedermayer and Brendan Shanahan.
Neale is best known for his years as a color analyst on CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” joining the iconic program in 1986. In 2007, the longtime Amherst resident became part of the Buffalo Sabres broadcast team, and he stayed with the team through the end of last season. He now works for Leafs TV in Toronto.
The effectiveness of his on-air persona and his approach to the analyst job were formed first as an aspiring pro player and later as a head coach with the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks.
“It first started at the rink in the backyard that my dad built for me when I was 5 or 6 years old,” the 76-year-old Neale said. “That’s when I had fallen in love with the sport and I have been in love with the sport for about 71 or 72 years now. My first dream was to be an NHL player, but on the way up I saw I wasn’t good enough to fulfill that. I played with and against a lot of guys who did make it.
“When my dream of being a professional hockey player fell apart, I had to get a job, so I taught high school for six years and that’s where my coaching job started. When coaching ended I was lucky enough to get a call from ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ They asked if I had any interest in working for them. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I had been on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ as one of the coaches they interviewed enough times. I knew the people who worked there and found that it still kept me involved in the sport I loved.”
His job as an analyst allowed him to continue to be part teacher and part coach, using his knowledge to help fans understand the game on a deeper level.
“I’m always hunting for plays that maybe the average hockey fan didn’t see or saw but didn’t fully appreciate,” Neale said. “You start by being honest and talking about some of the plays that weren’t so good. You try to keep it fair and balanced. It’s a game of mistakes. We all know that.”
A game of mistakes compounded by mistakes compounded by an acceptance of suffering has been the plight of the Sabres’ fans this season. The team is 3-15-1.
The Sabres were off Sunday as they returned from their California road trip, on which they went 1-2.
The Sabres return to practice today and host the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday before playing a home-and-home series with Toronto on Friday and Saturday.
Neale laughed when asked about the current situation for the Sabres. He knows too well the process and understands the emotional pain of all involved.
“I’ve coached teams that were young and in a rebuilding phase,” Neale said. “It’s a difficult time but it’s the only way to be a team that contends and has a chance to be a championship team. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. You’re going to lose games you might have won if you didn’t have so many younger players sprinkled in the lineup.
“It’s not an enjoyable situation and it takes a little longer than you’d like. … In the current NHL with the salary cap, it costs so much money to sign a big-time free agent and you don’t get them unless you’re already a contending team. Because if you are a free agent, you want to go to a team with a better chance of winning, not one that’s rebuilding. It’s a bitter pill for fans to swallow but it’s a bitter pill for the players and coaches, too. You have to suffer while you get better.”