James Neal in Nashville: Happy, dumb and dumber

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RichCluneShow on Instagram
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NASHVILLE – When Predators forward Mike Ribeiro thinks of scoring winger James Neal living with forward Rich Clune, it takes maybe half a second for him to compare them to a famous movie duo.

“Dumb and Dumber?” Ribeiro quipped.

There are all sorts of funny comparisons that can be thrown out there about Clune – the agitating winger who fights, chirps opponents and phones nasty Twitter followers – and Neal, the Penguins castoff who came to Nashville to not just score goals, but mend a broken reputation.

But Clune’s presence around Neal is probably the best situation that could have happened to Nashville’s newest sniper. Despite Clune’s on-ice persona, he’s a straight arrow off the ice, a recovering alcoholic who works out doggedly, cooks healthy and embraces the relaxed Nashville lifestyle, outside of the bars and Honky Tonks on Broadway.

“He’s a guy who takes care of his body, eats properly and doesn’t go out that much. I think it’s good for Neal. When you surround yourself with good people it makes you a better person and make better choices,” Ribeiro continued. “They stay at home a lot. I think that’s good for Neal and good for them.”

The joining of Neal, a former 40-goal man with the Penguins, and Clune for the first month of the season – Neal finally closed on a house, and moved out Monday – was about nine years in the making.

Both were 2005 draft picks with the Stars and both played together in Dallas’ AHL team in Iowa.

Though Clune was traded to Los Angeles in 2008, both kept up with one another. And when Neal (5 goals in 7 games, including a hat trick on Thursday night) was dealt to Nashville this summer for Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist, Clune understood there was probably a bit of shock for his old buddy and probably needed some help getting acclimated to a new city.

“He was torn between buying and renting a place. He has dogs, and I think he’s looking to put down roots here, so I said, ‘Hey man, I have a spare bedroom at my place, if you want to shack up for however long it takes, no rush,’” Clune said. “I didn’t want to see him buy a place in a hurry and make a mistake.”

Clune cooked often and showed Neal his extreme workout routines. They sometimes went to restaurants in the newly trendy East Nashville neighborhood, but mainly stayed home and relaxed when they weren’t working.

“We’ve been doing a lot of cooking at home. Rich likes to eat real healthy, so it has been good. He has been taking good care of me,” Neal said. “He has taken a liking to the city and embraced the city and he’s doing good things outside of hockey.”

Overall this sort of routine was important for Neal. Not only did he have a better sense of the city, it lessened the blow of the deal. When he was traded, there were whispers and reports that Neal was not well liked in the Pittsburgh locker room, which bothered him – never mind the fact he was at a teammate’s wedding when the trade was announced.

The bad-boy image on the ice couldn’t be denied by his three suspensions, but it was the off-the-ice issues that annoyed Neal the most. It seemed like he was essentially kicked to the curb as he left town.

“The only thing that really bothered me was when they say you’re not a good guy in the locker room and stuff like that,” Neal said. “I had a great relationship with every guy on the team there. I had a lot of fun playing in Pittsburgh. I enjoyed my time. I understand when you don’t win things are going to change. It’s a tough way to go out over the years – the way we lost. But that’s the way our business is, and I’ve been through the trade process before.”

Whatever the case with Neal’s relationship with his Penguins teammates, at least on the exterior he has been embraced by Nashville – not only as a scoring savior for the yearly goal-hungry franchise, but also as a leader. The team gave him the alternate captain’s ‘A’ a gesture that humbled him.

“It’s a huge honor coming in here and being a new guy… It’s a big honor to be able to come here and have the guys welcome me in,” Neal said. “It helps me out a lot. I’m a guy who wants to be a huge part of this team.”


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