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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On Pain:

What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?” – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

The buzzing of the planet is a daily reminder of our mind-bending advances in technology. Our satellites glimmer amongst the stars in the evening sky, a sky that plays host to thousands of soaring planes during the daylight hours. Our technological prowess has vastly increased the comfort of our daily lives. Like most things, however, our technology comes with a cost. Everything from iPhones to automobiles cost us money, which puts a price tag on the comfort and convenience they provide us. Comfort has thus become a thing of value. It has become important to us.

The importance placed on comfort by our society has inspired in us a ruthless seeking of it. We centre our lives around obtaining things that will aid us in avoiding discomfort, pain, and suffering. Yet I’m beginning to wonder if this spread of a certain Epicureanism throughout the western world has actually bettered our lives, or if it’s part of the reason we live such unfulfilled and relatively unhappy lives.

Flashback nearly two years ago, to my life of comfort. I was the Dionysus of an eastern Toronto suburb and my basement apartment man-cave served as my Olympus. I lived at home rent free, had no university debt, and was earning a full-time wage I could have saved to buy a house and a car with. I had nearly a dozen close friends close by, whom I had grown up with on the ice rinks and considered them more like brothers than friends. I had the best all-you-can-eat sushi joint just around the corner from my house. I had a gym buddy who was actually a ninja. I possessed the disposable income to do and purchase essentially whatever I pleased. I was a tree of comfort, and my roots were strong and deep. Life was painfully easy.

But I was unhappy. I was stagnant. I was unfulfilled.

An artist's rendition of my training partner. [Source: Hokusai Manga (1817) by Hokusai.]
An artist’s rendition of my gym buddy.
[Source: Hokusai Manga (1817) by Hokusai.]
Fast-forward to the present. I have long since left my job, friends, and family. I have vacated my Mount Olympus throne to travel across the Pacific ocean. I traded a life of comfort for the pursuance of something more. As of now, I’m uncomfortable, but I’m happy and feeling more fulfilled every day. I wouldn’t disillusion anyone and say anything about this has been easy, comfortable, or painless. Law school is a grind. Money is tight. I’m homesick. I miss my sisters, my mom and dad, my band of brothers/thieves/merry men. And I haven’t seen a single ninja since I landed here.

Yet is that pain and suffering not the price we pay for fulfilment, for happiness? Isn’t that our inherent agreement with the universe we are a part of? I look around myself and see that we naturally understand this contract.

I’ve seen “No Pain, No Gain” on gym singlets and “Pain is Temporary, Glory lasts Forever.” splattered on dressing room walls. I see all of us – the warriors of love – seeking out a significant other regardless of the pain relationships have caused us in the past, or the heartbreak we could be forced to endure in the future. We take the tests regardless of the chance of failure, or the immense effort required to study and learn. We play our various sports, knowing we’ll be bumped, bruised, and judged. We train our bodies to be strong through toil, trouble, and tears, even though they will eventually wither under the taxes of time. We paint, write, and dance, undeterred by the visions of the starving artist. We love our families and friends to the fullest, knowing the pain we’ll feel when they are inevitably taken from us. We do these things because we innately understand the nature of fulfilment.

What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?” – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

We know that the treasure of fulfilment is closely guarded by pain, suffering, and discomfort; the three heads of a hellhound protecting the gateway to happiness. We know that the most uncomfortable places are the classrooms where we learn and grow the most. We know that catching that perfect wave is worth the endless paddling, the hours of waiting, and the salt we get in our hair. We understand that the discomfort of rising in the early morning is the price of watching a stunning saffron sunrise. We know that trading the uninspiring view from base camp for the breathtaking scenery of the summit requires hours of treacherous hiking up the side of the mountain.

I think it’s entirely possible to live your whole life in comfort, confronted by minimal pain and suffering. I think this very moment there are many people who are dying in their retirement home beds who managed to accomplish this. I also believe that those same people would be willing to trade all of the days they lived in comfort for one chance to go back to their youth. They would go back and put themselves directly in the path of that same pain, suffering, and discomfort they have avoided all these years. For in doing so, they would also risk a life of happiness and fulfilment.

Don’t settle for comfort. Take the risk. Catch that perfect wave. Watch the sunrise. Fall in love. Climb that mountain.

…..I do miss that sushi joint though.

Be good to each other,

– MG.