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Modest McNeely Inspires Teammates

By Jawad Beg

Game Program, October 29, 2004

A small town boy becomes a big-time hockey player. The Hollywood themed plot seems just right for the big screen. However, it's a living reality for Matt McNeely. The defenseman for the Rensselaer Engineers is high on life, enjoying his final season in Troy.

The story begins in Almonte, Ontario, a town about a half-hour outside of Ottawa. "You grow up [there] very close with your family and friends. It was a lot of fun because I didn't even have cable growing up. I had about three channels so I was outside all day playing and doing whatever to get out more," the 5'11" senior said, with a smile. The focus of keeping busy and active began to lead to an interest in hockey. "One day at school one of my friends just said, 'Hey you should really come out and try out for a hockey team, it's a blast.' So I asked my mother and she said that I'd have to take a year of power skating. So, I did that, and played the next year. It was unbelievable. It was THE thing to do in my town."

The interest in the sport led to McNeely's following of his favorite team, the National Hockey League's (NHL) Toronto Maple Leafs. "My favorite player was Gary Leeman. I'm sure a lot of people don't know who that is, but he was still a favorite of mine."

One of McNeely's earliest moments on the ice may be prone to regretting. "One of my first experiences was that I was put in goal and I had a shot, and had no idea where the rebound was. Apparently it was right on the goal line," he said with a chuckle. "I was looking around for five seconds and finally a player poked it in behind me. I was like, 'That's it! I can't play goalie anymore!' I eventually played forward after that and then moved on to become a defenseman." The event, of course, did not let him down mentally and emotionally as McNeely soon thereafter began to rise in the ranks of competitiveness. "I was always an average player growing up," the humble McNeely said. "I didn't do anything overly exciting but I believe it was major pee-wee or minor bantam where one summer I played for a poor-scoring team. A lot of the players looked up to me to contribute offensively and that broadened my gears. From there on, I looked more to the offensive part of the game. My progression grew and I began to take more of a responsibility then."

McNeely's family had been a constant support throughout all his endeavors. "I can barely remember a game they missed when I was in minor hockey and even in junior hockey. They're always behind me. They never pushed me, though. They give me confidence and they added their tidbits of advice here and there, but they just let me play the game and were there for me if I was ever down." His brother, Phil, is someone's presence he always cherishes. "My brother always looked up to me. It's pretty neat to see him in the stands and gives you a warm feeling inside. He always tries to give me advice even though he can't skate. I always used to call him Coach Phil McNeely," McNeely said with a grin.

With his influence and support off the ice accounted for, McNeely tries his best to emulate Brian Rafalski of the NHL's New Jersey Devils on the ice. "I like to play like Rafalski because he's a smaller defenseman but he also chips in offensively while staying sturdy on defense. Even though he's a small player, a lot of people respect him because he throws around his weight." Off the ice, McNeely was honest and said he did not know who he'd model himself after. He tries his best to be open with all the fans and make a connection with everyone. "I treat them with respect the same way they treat me with respect."

It was when he played junior hockey with the Kanata Valley Lasers that Rensselaer approached McNeely with the opportunity to play for a Division-I university. "RPI talked to me when I was about sixteen and BC (Bill Cahill) came up to a game and told me the RPI was looking at me. He gave me a media guide and said that he'd be contacting me later on." McNeely continued to reminisce, "At first it was quite the shock because I didn't expect much as far as college teams looking at me, but after that, I looked into RPI and the great education factor couldn't be beat. Their tradition, too, within the [hockey] organization is unmatchable."

"When I came down for my visit it felt like a team atmosphere. Everyone seemed like a family around here. Even the supporters would come up and talk to me saying, 'Oh, you're a recruit, where are you from?' and, you know, it felt like a home." He echoed former teammate Carson Butterwick's '03 observation that when joining the team, "it's like twenty-five new friends instantly."

The transition into the hockey lifestyle seemed to go smoothly, but the academic facet took a bit of time for McNeely to adjust to. "The first two years was definitely a challenge in terms of balancing school and hockey. But, you know, you have to learn how to manage your time. You can definitely do it. It's pretty crazy to think of it now, but I actually enjoy school," he said lightheartedly. "Some of the classes are really interesting and I enjoy going to class."

With the focus on academic life taken care of, one issue that has remained constant throughout McNeely's time here is his preparation on gameday at the Houston Field House. His major pregame ritual has him sitting in the stands apart from the team and envisioning a perfect game in his mind as he stares at the ice.

Without hesitation, McNeely cited cross-town rivals Union College as the team he enjoys playing the most against. "It HAS to be the Union series. There's so much motivation to go into their rink and wanting to absolutely destroy them. They're a good team and definitely a good opponent."

On the verge of competing in over one-hundred games donning the cherry red and white, McNeely has accumulated nine goals and fifteen assists for twenty-four career points thus far. His thirteen points total last season and improved play on the ice defensively garnered him the Team's Most Improved Player Award. The award came as a result of a team decision. Upon hearing his name called McNeely said, "I was pretty excited but I knew there were a lot of players who could have got that award. A lot of players elevated their game last year. That just made us a better team and it could have been a team award, not just an individual award."

"I thought he was good to start with, but he definitely contributed a lot to the team. Defensemen don't always get their names in lights or in the paper about doing all that well, but he definitely did. It was a great part of our success," said senior goaltender Andrew Martin. "As a goaltender, he's a defenseman you love to have in front of you. Every time he's out there, you know he's going to cut down the offensive chances the other team gets, and possibly even get you a couple of goals."

Co-captain Brad Farynuk, McNeely's defensive partner, echoed Martin's sentiments. "I couldn't have been happier for Matt last year. He's such a great guy and I don't think anyone on the team would hesitate to acknowledge him for that award." Farynuk cited that McNeely always puts the extra effort in some of the activities on the ice that fans don't often notice. Chasing loose pucks and the communication he employs are a few that Farynuk noted. "It really complements his game and makes me look better too!" he said, chuckling.

"He's a hard-worker on the ice," added co-captain Nick Economakos. Although as captain he is often looked upon for leadership qualities, Economakos mentioned that he himself admires the leadership traits that McNeely hones. "He's very honest and genuine which I believe are very important traits to have. The trait I admire most about Matt and try my best to implement as captain is his loyalty - not just to the team, but his friends."

"He's a good hearted kid, that's for sure," said senior forward Vic Pereira. "Since he showed up here we always bugged him because he was the most highly touted recruit our class had. We saw it since day one the potential he had. He fought confidence issues which a lot of us have had, but it's really nice to see him play with confidence because, in my opinion, he's been our best defenseman so far this year."

His favorite hockey moment at Rensselaer occurred two years ago when the team visited Union in Schenectady for the first round of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Playoffs. "The comeback win against Union at their rink was an unbelievable task. The shorthanded goals scored by Benny Barr ('04) were one of the greatest moments in my life," McNeely warmly reflected.

It'll be the friends he has made at Rensselaer that he'll miss most after the season and classes are over. "Nick, Vic, C.J. [Hanafin], and Blake [Pickett]. They've been really close to me," he paused, "It's going to be tough walking across the stage when I get my diploma. It's a different world. Things are going to change and you're actually going to have to grow-up, find a job, and, you know, start living." However, with his time spent at RPI both on and off the ice, McNeely is wholeheartedly confident that he is well prepared for the real world.