When General Manager Jim Gregory managed to turn a lousy 1972-’73 season into trades for two extra first-round draft choices, it almost felt as though the long, painful season had been made worthwhile.
With the three selections in the summer amateur draft, as it was called back then, Toronto chose Lanny McDonald, then Bob Neely and finally, Ian Turnbull.
McDonald was the high-scoring winger from western Canada. Turnbull had starred with the Montreal Junior Canadiens before playing his final junior season with the Ottawa 67’s alongside superstar-in-waiting Denis Potvin (who was selected first overall in the ’73 draft).
Neely was the wildcard choice. He was the biggest of the three (6 feet 1 inch, maybe 215 pounds), the ‘sandwich’ pick for Toronto of the three they selected that summer day. I had seen Neely play a fair bit for his junior team, the Peterborough Petes. He had nice skills, especially for what in those days was considered a big man. He could skate well and could generally move well for a big guy.
But one thing I noticed watching him in junior is that, while he was something of a man amongst boys much of the time, he wasn’t really a “tough” guy, even in junior. But when the Leafs selected him along with fellow defenseman Turnbull, I had the feeling that they saw Turnbull as the offensive defenseman, which he was, and Neely would be the banger.
Unfortunately (if they were expecting something else), Neely could hit, but he wasn’t a fighter. And again, he wasn’t really a tough guy. My belief at the time and since is that he was miscast somewhat, first under Red Kelly and then Roger Neilson as his coaches with the Leafs. If only the Leafs had developed him in the minors a bit more, coached him properly, I believe they had a young man who had the skill set to be a pretty good NHL defenseman. I don’t know that Neely was quite ready for the NHL right out of junior. He didn’t show much confidence early on, and lacked poise. He got rid of the puck very quickly but not always with a purpose.
That said, I’ll always remember that he showed a range of skills I really liked. I recall him blasting a slap shot from the point and scoring a goal against the Red Wings at the Gardens one night, a one-timer that was an absolute rocket. Another game he stick handled his way into a breakaway after a rink-long dash from his own end zone. On yet another occasion, he upended Bobby Orr with an open-ice, Bobby Baun-style hip check.
So, Neely showed these flashes at different times, but never quite, as scouts like to say, put it all together consistently. If (a big if for a lot of athletes, I realize) he had been more dedicated to conditioning, if the Leafs had worked with him more intelligently, I wonder if he could have been an impact player. As it was, he was always considered something of a disappointment, though he scored 17 goals in the 1976-77 season. I know he played up on the wing on occasion, but I think he still played defense most of that year, so 17 goals was a big total.
He ended up spending four and a bit seasons in Toronto, played briefly with the Colorado Rockies and then a couple of years back in Toronto’s minor league system. I think Neely had more to give—if he had been in tip-top condition, had matured more quickly and been brought along properly by the Leafs.
But none of that happened, and he became another high draft choice that never reached his potential with the Leafs.