Puck Daddy chats with Dallas's James Neal about avoiding sophomore jinx, awkward rookie fights and his hockey mentors

James Neal(notes) of the Dallas Stars returned from a groin injury last night and scored his 10th goal of the season in 16 games, fulfilling the promise of his 24-goal rookie campaign.

It was an interesting transition for Neal to Year 2, going from Mike Modano's(notes) wing man last year to an explosive line with Brad Richards(notes) and Loui Eriksson(notes) for most of this season. Interesting in sense that Neal and Richards are "best friends off the ice" while Eriksson and Richards were dynamic together last year as linemates last season.

"I didn't want to come in and disturb that. I wanted to just do the little things, and find my way onto their line," Neal said earlier this week.

Are there politics between Neal and Eriksson when it comes to the number of offensive chances on Richards's wing?

"We're two big guys. Loui's so good at getting behind defensemen, and being in areas where he can score. I'm more of a physical guy, trying to get on the forecheck," said Neal. "We've found a way to all work together. Brad's a great passer, and he feeds us."

The most politicking comes from their veteran center. "[Richards] gives us heck for all the tap-ins that he gives us that we don't give back to him," he said.

"We give him a tap-in once every 15 games to keep him happy."

We spoke with Neal about avoiding the dreaded sophomore jinx; the reversal of fortunes for the Stars after last season's disaster; the mentorship of NHL great Gary Roberts(notes); having TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie as coach; as well as being one of the few young players (22 years old) that isn't addicted to his iPod or DVDs on the road. Enjoy.

Q. Your rookie year was a really bizarre one for the franchise: Coming off a great playoff run and then completely tanking the following season. As a rookie, did you have a sense of how wrong things had gotten for that team?

NEAL: It was different being a rookie. I wasn't around for the run they had at the Cup. I was just so excited being in the NHL and have a spot on the roster. But it started right in the preseason games, where we lost almost every game.

Everything was a bit of a disaster -- like the Avery deal.

Q. When you come into this season, are you at all dreading the sophomore jinx?

NEAL: It's something that's in the back of your mind, but you just have to come in and do the things that got you there. I kinda had that sophomore year jinx in junior. I came back for my second after going to camp in Dallas; you think things are going to be easier, and their not. So I knew what to expect coming into this year.

I looked back at the Calder Trophy voting, and you only had two fourth-place votes after scoring 24 goals last year. I thought that was a disgrace, sir. A guy named Chris Butler(notes) in Buffalo got more votes than you did.

I didn't even know that. That's crazy.

It's probably not something you search out after you don't win the Calder.


As a rookie, who was the toughest defenseman you had to face in the NHL? Who sort of stunned you by being that good?

Probably Chris Pronger(notes), when we played the Ducks. Just these cross checks, right in your back. He's such a big guy. It's hard to hit him.

What are some of the improvements you made from Year 1 to Year 2 in the NHL?

You just mature more. You get a better feel for all the buildings, all the travel, of being a pro. There's a lot of stuff that comes with that; not just using your skills on the ice but the off-ice mentality you have to have.

You have to be so consistent, yet you play so much. Last year, I'd have a good game, be feeling pretty high, and then you have a game the next day and you might not play as good as you did the night before. You gotta stay on an even keel.

Things are obviously going well for you this season, and overall Dallas is playing better hockey. Are you guys at a point where you're not worried that the roof's not going to cave in like it did in 2008?

It's a new year. [GM Joe Nieuwendyk(notes)] came in and Marc [Crawford] came in. Things have been rolling: Guys are confident in the locker room, we're playing good hockey.

A lot of the guys had [Coach Dave Tippett] for a long time, a bunch of years. They were so used to him, so it was going to be an adjustment. But they've brought into Marc's system really well. It's been a good change; something the organization needed.

You played a ton with Mike Modano last year. What do you learn from a guy like him, playing on his wing?

It's crazy: You grow up watching Mike Modano, the greatest American-born hockey player. You go to camp, just trying to make an NHL club, and you find yourself on the left wing of his line.

I took it day to day, but it was an unbelievable experience. He's quiet, but he tells you little things. He's a great passer, skates so well; putting pucks where I can get a hold of them. There's a lot of little things that people don't even see that he did for me.

You were never dragging grandpa up and down the ice then?

He could keep up with the kids. [We] bug him a bit that he can't, but he's right there.

You're best friends with your new center and roommate, Brad Richards. Considering his salary, do you ever have to pay for anything when you hang out?

He's good about that. But he's on me for my rent checks. He pays a little bit more than I do for our house in Dallas.

I want to go back to when you were drafted by the Stars, because it's interesting how you found out about it: From Mike McKenzie, son of Bob McKenzie [of TSN], right?

Yeah, Mike texted me and said, 'Congratulations.' And I hadn't seen anything yet; hadn't gotten a call or anything. I was watching [the draft] at home on the TV, and after the first round the TV went blank because the NHL Network was done with the draft. I'm like, 'what?!'

Bob must have told Mike right away, and he texted me. After that, I got a phone call from Dallas.

Bob McKenzie also coached you, right?

Yep. Bob always coached the Whitby Wildcats the year above me, the '86 team. When they were short guys, they'd call me up to play and Bob was the coach.

Were there times when you'd be looking for a line change and see your coach on his cell phone talking to Brian Burke?

[Laughs] No, he's an intense guy, down to business for sure when he was coaching. Wouldn't let you get away with much.

Speaking of mentors, you also had a training relationship with the great Gary Roberts when you were in the OHL. Complete this sentence for me: "Gary Roberts is such a badass that _____."

So badass that he started me on training.

There you go. Did you know they have "What Would Gary Roberts Do?" bracelets on the Internet?


Yeah, he's become a cult sensation. There are entire Web sites dedicated to Gary Roberts jokes in the tradition of the Chuck Norris jokes. Would you wear a WWGRD bracelet if you had one?

For sure.

He keeps himself in top shape, which is why he was able to play so long. You can see the intensity that he has. Plus, he's a Whitby boy like myself, so I looked up to him.

Speaking of being a badass, I looked back at your first NHL fight against Derick Brassard(notes) of the Columbus Blue Jackets, such as it was. It's pretty rare that one guy, in the middle of the fight, skates away and says "no mas." What gives?

During the fight he did something to his shoulder, and he ended up being done for the rest of the year. He was yelling during the fight, so I knew something was wrong.

If that happened to me, I wouldn't want the other guy to be pounding away on me when you know you can't throw a punch back. It's just the respect that some guys have, and that's why it was done the way it was done.

For the sake of closure, I just wanted to point out that you also finished ahead of him in the Calder voting.

Oh yeah? [Laughs]

Switching gears, it appears we're headed to a rule in the NHL that's going to deal with hits to the head. As a physical player, do you think they need to be legislated out of the game or do you think they're just going to happen regardless?

It is going to happen. A lot of guys who have done it don't mean to do it: They get a little carried away, or they go a little too fast or something like that.

It's the hits to the head where the guy's in a vulnerable position, you gotta lay off. Guys are bigger, guys are smaller ... it's a debate where you can go back and forth on it all day. They're going to be around; but you don't want to give a guy a concussion and have him out for a long period of time.

Alright, so what's on your iPod these days?

Richie's got me listening to all kinds of stuff right now, but you know what? I don't even bring my iPod on the road. Don't even listen to it.


I like music but I'd rather just talk to the guys. I feel like I'm missing something if I have it on. I don't bring DVDs, I don't watch movies. I don't have Facebook or anything.

The one fast food item you can't live without, sir?

A Big Mac at McDonald's.

Last good movie you saw?

"Seven Pounds" [with Will Smith].

Did you cry?

I had to hold it in.

Your adult beverage of choice, sir.

Just a water.

Finally, what do you love best about hockey?

Scoring goals.