Get a Feel for the Real Deal: This is James Neal
When it comes to the Neal family, hockey is in their blood. Peter and Deborah Neal - James' parents - have spent many years in and out of hockey arenas, as all 4 of their boys - James, Michael, Peter and Nicholas - play hockey. Michael followed in big brother James' footsteps as he was drafted by the Dallas Stars in the 5th round (149th overall) of the 2007 NHL draft. Currently Michael is playing for the Orlando Solar Bears (ECHL), while Peter skates for the Knoxville Ice Bears (SPHL), and youngest brother Nicholas for his hometown Whitby Fury (OJHL). James also has a younger sister named Rebecca, who is just finishing up high school.
James started his hockey career at a young age with the CYO in Oshawa, Ontario. He then went on to continue his minor hockey career with the Whitby Wildcats of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association's (OMHA) Eastern AAA League. Following his midget season with the Wildcats, James was picked by the Plymouth Whalers in the 3rd round, 80th overall, of the 2003 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft. After a 9 game stint with the Whalers, James was assigned to the Bowmanville Eagles Junior A team in the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) for the 2003-04 hockey season.
The following year James cracked the Whalers lineup, and he also earned a spot on Team Canada for the World Under-18 Championships, where he won a silver medal. After an impressive rookie season in the OHL - scoring 44 points - James was selected in the 2005 National Hockey League Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars - 2nd round, 33rd overall. That Fall, James was invited to his first NHL training camp but was sent back to Plymouth where he continued to hone his skills. Even though he was returned again to the Whalers following the 2006 Stars training camp, the team was impressed with his developement and signed James to a 3-year, entry-level contract. The 2006-07 season proved to be a career year in junior for James, scoring 27 goals and 65 points in 45 games. He was also selected to represent the Western Conference in the 2007 OHL All-Star Game. James continued to be a force in the playoffs too, as he helped the Plymouth Whalers capture their first and only J. Ross Robertson Cup as the OHL Champions. The win earned his team a berth in the 2007 Memorial Cup, where James led all tournament scorers with five goals. Unfortunately, his team lost in the semi-finals. To cap off a great junior career, James was also selected as a 1st Team OHL All-Star.
In 2007–08, James jumped to the American Hockey League (AHL) to play with Dallas' farm team, the Iowa Stars. He was also once again selected to play for Team Canada, this time at the World Junior Championships in Sweden, where they struck gold. After yet another successful campaign, he earned a crack at the big leagues with the Stars in the 2008-09 season. On October 10th in Dallas, James made his NHL regular season debut and recorded his 1st career NHL goal in his 1st NHL game against Pascal Leclaire of the Columbus Blue Jackets. December 23, 2008 was another exciting date for James, as he played his first game in his hometown of Toronto. James went on to score a hat trick against his childhood favourite team - the Maple Leafs - to the pleasure of many family and friends in attendance. The league was starting to take notice, and his early rookie season performance led him to be selected to play in the YoungStars game at the NHL All-Star Weekend in Montreal. James finished his first season 11th among the top rookies in scoring with 24 goals and 37 points. And with his 24 goals, he became the new Dallas Stars record holder for goals scored by a rookie. Following the season, James was selected to make his third appearance in the red and white, as he helped Canada to win silver at the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland. James' sophomore season picked up right where his rookie season ended, as he scored the Stars' first 2 goals of the season against the Nashville Predators. He finished his second NHL season with 55 points, which made him 3rd highest scorer on the 2009-10 Stars.
For the Stars management, James represented their hopes for the future as he was a big scoring winger that they needed. So prior to the 2010-11 season, he signed a two-year contract extension with the Stars. His future looked bright in Dallas, but on February 21, 2011, leading up to the trade deadline, James was traded to the Nashville Predators, along with defenseman Matt Niskanen, for defenseman Alex Goligoski. The Penguins were in need of a sniper to play the wing along side of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, and James fit the bill. They even used hockey analytics to come to the conclusion that he was their man. That season James made his first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. He scored his 1st career playoff goal in a thrilling double-overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 20, 2011. After an early exit from the playoffs, James suited up again for Team Canada at the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, making this his fourth time wearing the maple leaf.
The 2011-12 NHL season proved to be the breakout year for James, playing on Pittsburgh's top line along with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. His superb play was acknowledged with a trip to his first NHL All-Star game in Ottawa, where he recorded an assist in a losing cause for Team Alfredsson. On February 19, 2012 - the day after he scored 30 goals for the first time in his career - James signed a six year contract extension with the Penguins. NBC Sports also featured him on an episode of 'NHL 36'. James finished up the season with a career high of 40 goals, 41 assists, and 81 points - the 7th highest producer in the 2011-12 NHL campaign. His accolades continued as he was also voted 1st Team NHL All-Star (Right Wing) by representatives of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.
Even with a lockout shortened season in 2012-13, James still managed to score 21 goals in 40 games, and added 6 more in the post-season, including his first career playoff hat trick against the Ottawa Senators on May 24, 2013. Since James' rookie season in Dallas, he has scored over 20 goals in each of the 5 seasons he's played in the NHL. In fact, over the past two years, the only players who have scored more NHL goals are Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin.
In the off-season, James was invited to the Team Canada 2014 Olympic orientation camp. As the 2013-14 NHL season begins, only time will tell if James will get his 5th opportunity to represent Canada at the 2014 Olympics.