The “real deal” is that James Neal is an easy target, and that is understandable. Neal is unapologetically himself, and that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way – especially in a city such as Pittsburgh, where the star athletes are too often too important to people that want them to be something they simply are not, which is a finished product.
Neal, 26, is not finished growing into the man he will become. In fact, the guess here is that he has only really just started. This past season, ultimately his last with the Penguins, provided him painful moments that called for reflection – and this last one, a trade that shocked him, should provide him an opportunity for growth.
People can think what they want of Neal. A lot of people think they probably know him.
I am not one of those people. As Neal compelled me to write only a few months ago, I do not believe journalists ever really know the athletes we cover. As journalists, we feel important by insisting we know these athletes, but we do not – at least not as people. Neal, perhaps more than any athlete, helped me realize that truth.
See, I enjoyed covering Neal. I appreciated the attributes that I suspect others found distasteful. Maybe I find an advantage in building a professional relationship with somebody that seems difficult to everybody else? Maybe I subconsciously relate to something about that somebody? Maybe I’m a mark for a challenge?
I really don’t know why I enjoyed covering Neal, but I did. He always made time to answer a question, and in my business that is one of the few things that is fair for a reporter to ask of somebody he or she covers.
Trading Neal was the absolute right call by the Penguins, though – even though he was never one of the biggest reasons they failed to win the Cup during his four postseason runs with the club.
Neal will be better off in Nashville, where he will have to continue growing because now he has the responsibility of being “The Man” offensively for a team that has long needed “That Guy.”
Neal was the best player in the trade the Penguins made on Friday night, and teams that give up the best player usually lose a trade. Still, the Penguins had to make this one. Something about them is broken, and though that something is far from being fixed, the reality is that Neal was the easiest member of this nucleus for GM Jim Rutherford to move because of contract clauses for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
There are more than two sides to every story, and that is especially true with the story about people that have a public profile. Now that Neal is no longer a Penguin, I feel this story can be shared:
The day after the Penguins’ Game 7 loss to the Rangers in May, a group of players hit the city to blow off some steam. This is not an uncommon practice when an NHL season ends for a club.
This night, at one establishment, the Penguins players lined across and around a bar. A bartender at this establishment, as the best bartenders do, treated them as regular customers, not pro athletes. He gave them space and served them drinks.
At one point during the evening, one of the players called the bartender over and said, “Are you a big fan?”
The bartender, who happened to be wearing a Penguins ball cap, answered with a nod.
“I’m really sorry, bud,” the player said. “We should have won that series. We let everybody down. I should have played better, so I’m sorry. I wish we could have don better for you.”
This story was relayed to me a week later.
“Obviously, you don’t know,” the bartender said. “But that guy didn’t have to say any of that to me. He brought it up. He just seemed to be taking it very hard. It seemed real.”
The bartender said that player was James Neal.
>> Josh Yohe will be leading the coverage of free agency from this point going forward. You’d do well to follow him on Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib. (To every season turn, turn, turn…)
Be EXCELLENT to each other,