On James Neal:

The truth isn’t always easy. In a society mainly concerned with comfort, we will often seek convenience over the truth.  Our love of the scapegoat is a perfect example of this. We’ve seen it many times in many realms; we’ve seen scapegoats in politics, in war, and in sports. We do it because its easy. It’s easy to find a singular, simple source of blame than it is to scratch beyond the superficial surface of an issue.

A Flashback:

I remember it was an unseasonably warm Australian afternoon in late June. I had just finished a four hour Corporate Law exam and was waiting in line for a double triple shot of espresso so I could stay awake for the rest of the day. Friends back home were taking part in the Canadian past time of watching the NHL draft and criticizing their favourite team’s picks as couch-ridden, unpaid general managers. I turned my phone on, and it blew up. 

James Neal had been traded to the Nashville Predators. I was shocked. Not because he’s a 40 goal scorer. Not because of his big body presence or his quick release that would make most players envious. Those things can theoretically be replaced. The reason the trade struck me as curious was that I couldn’t for the life of me propose a valid reason as to why it happened.

The (debatable) official reasons for the trade eventually surfaced. Over the next few months a number of additional articles emerged discussing the trade. There was an overwhelming theme that this trade was chemotherapy for the Penguins; that they had eradicated a cancer in removing James Neal. Articles claimed that this trade improved the character and the dressing room environment of the Penguins (without providing any real evidence). Usually, the writer hinted to whispers amongst pundits or equated on-ice discipline with who Neal is as a person and a professional. James Neal – the player and the person – deserved more than that.

The Player’s Player:

James Neal is, and always has been, a great team-mate. He’s loose in the dressing room. His on and off-ice chemistry with Geno was rivalled by few power duos in the league. He’s a professional in every sense of the word. Coaches and players past and present vouch for his relentless work ethic and dedication off the ice and during practice.  

Neal and I playing for Whitby Minor Bantam AAA for the 2001-02 season.
Neal and I playing for Whitby Minor Bantam AAA for the 2001-02 season.

I played for nearly ten years with James Neal. We put on the same jersey for close to 1000 games of hockey. For most of them, he was my captain. He’s a silent yet strong leader who leads the way by example. He’s more dedicated to his body and his craft than anyone I’ve ever met.

He is selfless and will do whatever is asked of him (just ask Craig Hartsburg, who took Neal to fill a third line checking role with Team Canada on its way to World Junior gold in 2007). He’ll hit hard, he’ll fight if he has to, and he’ll do whatever gives the team the best chance of winning. He wants to win more than anyone in that Nashville dressing room right now. Ingrained deep within him is a sense of integrity that will never allow these things to change. Nashville is extremely lucky to have him, and they know it. Simply put, he’s a player’s player.

James Neal winning the U21 World Juniors in 2007. [Source: Getty Images]
James Neal winning the U21 World Juniors in 2007.
[Source: Getty Images]
He’s shown himself to be a leader since his days in junior, and he’s already taken nicely to the assistant captain role in Nashville – showing that he can not only play on the defensive side of the puck, but also relate to and mentor young superstars who are learning the professional ropes.


It begs the obvious question: If he possessed such a cancerous character, why were at least 15 other teams in the market to acquire him? Why did Nashville commit to the remaining twenty million dollars on his contract, and give him the assistant captaincy?  It doesn’t exactly add up.

James Neal was painted as the villainous cancer in Pittsburgh because it was easier than addressing a massive lack of depth and toughness that the Penguins are suffering from.

Let’s Be Honest:

The trade was a bad one. It was a knee-jerk reaction by a new general manager who felt he needed to make a big splash to show fans that the perennial underachieving of the Penguins was not going to be tolerated. Neal was the biggest name that also doubled as a disposable commodity. Let’s face it, Crosby and Malkin weren’t going on the block. When you look at the trade, at both face value and in greater detail, it requires an additional layer to make it justifiable to fans and experts alike. The James-Neal-is-a-cancer myth served that purpose.

The Real Issue:

The Penguins maintained the core of superstars that won a cup, so why is post season under-performing becoming a theme in Pittsburgh? They lost the character that it takes to win in the play-offs.

Think of game seven against the Red Wings in ’09. Remove Max Talbot, his grit, and his two clutch goals from the Penguins line-up. Does Crosby lift the cup at the end of that game? Probably not. 

Max Talbot scoring what turned out to be the Stanley Cup winning goal in 2007. [Photo Source: USAToday.com]
Max Talbot scoring what turned out to be the Stanley Cup winning goal in 2009. [Photo Source: USAToday.com]
So how did the James Neal trade fix this culture of quitting when the games get tough? Of folding when adversity strikes? How did it help with character?

It didn’t. 

The Pens didn’t add anything in that department, and their play-off woes remained the same. You need sandpaper to win in the play-offs. Neal has that, and I’ve yet to see it in his replacement(s).

James Neal, The Person:

I understand the convenience behind the scapegoat. I understand its logical use in deflecting attention away from under-performing franchise players and in appeasing fan criticism. I understand that Neal was the perfect head to roll and this is a business. It would have been much tougher for Jim Rutherford to roll up his sleeves and go to work on the actual problems plaguing the Penguins. Yet something deep inside of me can never agree with how they turned James Neal into a scapegoat. They did it by attacking his character and his person.

There’s an entire human being the fans and media don’t see. They don’t see the guy who wakes up before sunrise to put long hours into training during his off-season. They don’t see his charity work, in both his home town and in Nashville. They don’t see the guy who takes care of his friends and family, all the people who love him for the man he’s become. 

James Neal supporting Smilezone Foundation at the abilities center in Whitby, Ontario. [Source: James Neal's Official Instagram]
James Neal supporting Smilezone Foundation at the abilities centre in Whitby, Ontario. [Source: James Neal’s Official Instagram]

We’re all entitled to an opinion. If you believe Neal’s departure was the start of a positive change in steel town, I respect that. I only ask that in your endless justification of the trade, do not stoop to taking shots at his character or his integrity.


It’s too easy to criticize a man when he’s out of favour, and to make him shoulder the blame for everybody else’s mistakes.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.


Big Picture:

These players are human beings just like you and I. It is in recognising them as such – through our human empathy – that we must find the strength to resist the urge to join in the whispers of defamation and gossip. The people we use as scapegoats, in politics or in sports, are certainly not perfect.

But they do their best. They make mistakes, but so do we. They love. They bleed. They sweat. They cry.

Treat them that way.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

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Follow Your Own Path:

Why you have nothing to lose finding and walking your own path.

For all of you none-sports fans out there, I promise the greater message behind this short story is worth the wait. So, bear with me!

At some point last year, I had just finished watching the Chicago Blackhawks knock out James Neal and his Nashville Predators in game six of their first-round NHL play-off series.

It was one of the most exhilarating play-off series I’ve seen in a very long time. It was full of goals, hits, skill, clutch plays, over-times, heroes, villains, and drama. In short, it was everything that sports fans watches hockey for. 

James Neal, Alternate Captain of the Nashville Predators
James Neal, Alternate Captain of the Nashville Predators Photo Credit: Nashville Predators Official Twitter Page (@PredsNHL)

When the game ended, Chicago being victorious, I  couldn’t explain why I felt a deep sense of injustice inside of myself. That injustice followed me around all day, a looming shadow constantly nipping at my heels. Why was I so rattled over the result of a game?

It bothered me until I was forced to stop and face the feeling in an attempt to understand it. I wanted to sit with the emotion in the hope that eventually I would let it go. Catch and release.

♠ ♠ ♠

On the surface, the source of that feeling seemed fairly obvious. Nashville had done everything that every young player is taught would result in their success on the ice. Not only had they done everything right, but they had done it better than Chicago.

And yet there they were, eliminated from the play-offs.

I felt as though something had been taken from Nashville. Like they deserved better. But why?

The more I took a deeper look at this feelings, the more I began to realize the root of the problem wasn’t specific to sports. It’s something we all deal with, every day, a humans.

In this particular instance, my negative feelings lay in a strange idea of hockey “justice” that had been indoctrinated into me at a young age. As athletes, we are taught to place all of our faith into the notion that if you play the game a certain positive way, a specific positive result will follow.

The problem with investing so much faith into this belief is that in sports, as in life, there is no actual guarantee of that desired result.

♠ ♠ ♠

In life, we’re faced with these false promises every day of our lives.

If we just follow these simple academic guidelines, we will get into a good university and find a respectable job. If we just master these certain athletic skills and systems, we will soon be playing in the big leagues.

If we find a beautiful or handsome spouse, own a white picket fence, a family dog, two new cars in the garage, and make six figures, we will find happiness. If we act in this holy manner, we will go to heaven when we die.

child-praying.jpg
“Dear God, I’m sorry I didn’t eat my broccoli. Please let me into heaven. And give me that big red fire truck toy I asked mum for.”

Most of the time it is either implied, or explicitly stated, that not following these guidelines will lead to the opposite result. We will fail out of school, get cut from the team, be unhappy in life, or burn in hell.

♠ ♠ ♠

I think that these inferences hold merit on a basic level.

If you refuse to attempt a mastery of your athletic skills, you probably won’t make the show. If you refuse to dedicate yourself to reading and writing, your academic pursuits will definitely be more difficult. I think basic instructions on the improvement of dream-specific tools serve as strong groundwork for anyone pursuing those dreams.

There are certain things you can’t ignore while chasing your dreams. Things like hard work, passion, and sincerity will always be crucial to your success.

So why do I think our How we should do things sense of justice is such a potentially dangerous set of beliefs to put our faith into?


Because we ignore the possibility that a team like Nashville can follow the age-old formula, preached by hockey clergyman, and still lose the game.

We ignore the possibility that we can obtain that corner office and own the dream house in the suburbs and still be unhappy.

We can experience hell on earth even if we are morally good people.

We can have a chiseled six-pack and still be unhealthy, or unable to truly love ourselves.

We ignore the possibility that we can wake up at twenty nine years old in peak physical condition, be highly skilled, but still be in the minor leagues.

♠ ♠ ♠

It is in our ignorance of these very real possibilities that we create very real suffering for ourselves. We see life as unfair or unjust. We’re shocked and appalled when these negative possibilities come to fruition. We waste years pursuing something because someone else told us it will bring us joy. Then we feel as though life isn’t fair when that joy doesn’t magically appear.

Yet, there is absolutely no logical basis for us to feel this sense of injustice when these perverse results occur. The injustice lays only in the vast faith we’ve put into the doctrine of “how things should be.”

In cases where one acts correctly but still suffers disaster, one is left bewildered and unable to fit the event into a scheme of justice. The world seems absurd.” – Seneca the Younger, as quoted in The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton.

This may seem like a negative perspective, but it’s not.

I believe that understanding these very real negative possibilities gives us – as human beings – real strength.

If you can fail by following the rules then you can succeed without fanatically following them.

Bondi-Beach-2-copy-1280x800.jpg
There are no rules. Only choices. See the world, chase the sun.

You can be a respectable person without pursuing a traditionally esteemed occupation. You can publish an influential academic piece without attending Harvard, or topping all of your classes. You can be a great champion without a pedigree or without following the traditional path of your respective sport or discipline. If heaven is your goal, you can still find that stairway if you step outside of the three thousand year old guidelines written in scripture.

You can be a happy person without following the status quo or chasing the American dream.

I can’t give you a blueprint that guarantees success for your pursuits in life. I can’t tell you the way to happiness. But neither can anyone else.

So break the chains of expectation. Free yourself from the prison of how things should be, the shackles of how we should live. Stop wasting time following other people’s blueprint for happiness, achievement, success, or spirituality.

Carve the path that calls to you. Follow your dream whether or not convention considers it probable, because convention can’t guarantee you success or failure. All you can do in chasing your sun is keep your feet moving and your eyes on the light.

And let come what come may.

Be good to each other,

~ MG.

Photo Use Courtesy of:

(1) Cover: joecoculo.tumblr.com
(2) Boy Praying: ministry-to-children.com
(3) Girls at Bondi: blog.ishine365.com