The Comeback Captain
After suffering a knee injury in April, veteran forward Michael Neal is back and contributing in a big way for the FuelDec 19, 2017
(By Liv Rogowski)
Originally drafted in 2009 by the Dallas Stars, Michael Neal saw extensive time between the AHL’s Texas Stars and ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads as he grew into his life as a professional hockey player. His journey would soon take him all over the world, but it was in Orlando that he felt he had his best year yet.
“Nothing beats wearing a t-shirt and shorts to the rink all year!” said a laughing Neal. During his stint with the Orlando Solar Bears for the 2012-13 season, he recorded 12 goals and 20 assists within 46 games. A successful professional career was certainly in the cards for the Ontario native. After all, stardom clearly runs in the family; Mike’s older brother, James Neal, is currently thriving with the Vegas Golden Knights, recording 14 goals in just 30 games.
Searching for great experiences far and wide, Mike took off to Germany for the summer of 2016 where he put up an impressive 10 goals and 12 assists all within 31 games. Short afterward, the Indy Fuel, a proud Chicago Blackhawks affiliate, contacted him to offer a contracted deal to continue his ECHL career. Neal touched down in Indiana that following February.
“I got the call to come to Indy and there was no hesitation- I jumped on that very fast.”
Making an impact right away in his new home, Mike was already looking forward to a summer full of strong development, considering he only got to take the ice with his new team for about two months before the 2016-17 season came to a close. With a bright, auspicious career ahead, his plans were turned up-side-down with only two games left in the ECHL season.
On April 2, Neal tallied a goal in the first period to kick off a home game against Cincinnati. It was in the second period when he went down with a feeling in his knee that he was a little too acquainted with, having torn his ACL before.
“I knew something was seriously wrong,” said Neal, shaking his head while reflecting back.
Optimism on the matter began to diminish the following day as he wasn’t able to ride a stationary bike without his knee clicking and crunching. Fuel trainer, George Bullock, summoned Mike into his office and inaudibly motioned to the computer screen. There it was: a clear picture of his ruptured ACL.
“News like that is a battle, and it takes a toll on you. You can take it one of two ways: bite your lip and get back to work or you can pout and ask, ‘Why me?’ …That’s not who I am. I had my cry then got right back to work.”
Mike rehabbed into early the early fall, missing the first six games of the 2017-18 ECHL season. As he skated out onto home ice in Indy for the first time since surgery, there was a notable “C” on the front of his jersey, which was officially awarded to him by Coach Bernie John on November 10.
“I felt very proud and honored to get the Captain “C” with Bernie.” he said, humbled.
Neal also said he takes pride in his leadership and likes to keep the locker room light, always talking and making sure his team doesn’t forget to have fun. Giving credit where it’s due, Mike showed what kind of true team player he is by speaking praises about Zach Miskovic, last year’s team captain:
“I still learn a lot from Misko. He has helped this team out tremendously. You can see how hard he works on the ice, but he works just as hard off the ice.”
Mike’s story has been anything but a hockey fairytale; no athlete pictures tearing their ACL when they envision what their future holds. An injury of that severity can take months and even years to come back from, but fortunately, Neal was on an accelerated track to returning to a high level of play. Remarkably, it only took the captain three games upon his return to put the puck in the net. Not to mention, he’s notched nine goals within the last 10 games, helping the men of Indy triumph over two of the ECHL’s division leaders.
With over half of the season left to play, we are supremely confident in saying that there is plenty more where that came from with Michael Neal.
Don’t call it a comeback.