Don't ask Cam Neely to tell you a joke.
The stoic Hockey Hall of Fame power forward, who made a name in the NHL with his soft hands (395 goals) and hard fists (1,241 PIM), will readily admit that witticisms and quips aren't his forte.
"No, I would not attempt to do that," he says, with the ring of a man who knows his strengths. "To tell a joke, I know I would mess it up."
Ask the man, now the President of the Boston Bruins, about laughing, and it's a whole different story. The man can rattle off a list of his favorite comedians—Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke, Bill Burr, Louis C.K, Steven Wright, Jim Gaffigan, Patrice O'Neal...—and it's clear how he prefers to spend his non-hockey time.
In fact, shortly after being traded to Boston in 1986, he immersed himself in the city's stand-up scene, preferring the comedy clubs over going to the movies. The laughter took on an increased importance when his parents were diagnosed with cancer, six months apart.
"I felt, you know, when you're going through difficult times, like most people are when someone is dealing with an illness or a sickness like cancer, I thought that, especially in my household, humor was something that important to the family," Neely says.
His mother Marlene passed late in 1987, his father Michael in 1993. Neely was spurred into action, eventually creating the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care in 1995, as well the Neely House, a living quarters at Tufts Medical Center for patients and their families. In order to fundraise for his charities, the bruising winger knew where to turn.
He started with Leary, a hockey fanatic in his own right whom Neely had become close with over the years in keeping up with the Boston comedy scene.
"I asked him if he had any interest in doing a benefit comedy show for Foundation and he said that he would love to do something," Neely says. "And he basically—I thought it was just going to be him, but he came up with the concept of having a bunch of other local comedians, whether they were from here or went to school here. The first show was a hit, it was a huge hit."
Fast forward to 2017 and the show, known as Comics Come Home, will take the stage in Boston on November 18th for its 23rd straight year. From its humble beginnings at the 2,000-seat Orpheum Theatre to selling out Agganis Arena and onto crowds of nearly 13,000 at the TD Garden, the show has raised over $10 million and come to be embraced by the city.
"One of the big things about this is, when you do something for a charity, it tends to tail off after a few years," says Clarke, who has taken the stage at the event 22 times. "This is just the opposite. It gets bigger and better every year."
As the event has grown—2017's version will be the third at the Garden and will feature Clarke, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson among the comedians along with host Leary—it's taken on a bigger meaning for Neely.
"Especially early on, when we first started doing the comedy show, and the loss of my parents were fresh," he says. "We all deal with difficult times, whether it's at work or at home, or if a loved one is ill, to be able to take some time and really laugh for a couple of hours, certainly for me, it is therapeutic."
He hopes that same effect takes place on the audience, which often includes cancer patients helped by Neely’s charities.
"There's probably more that I don't even know, there's cancer survivors and families that are in the audience that I wouldn't know that they're dealing with it."
For the comedians, as well, the show has taken on some personal meaning. Clarke, for instance, stayed at the Neely House while his wife went through a second bout with breast cancer: "I was staying at motels. Cam and his wife found out and said, 'Are you an idiot? You've helped us over the years!'"
"He believes in this, he cares about people," says Clarke. "I've seen how he treats the people that stay at the Neely House. He makes sure that he and the staff go out of their way to make people feel welcome and let them know that, look, if we can help your family in any way, we're here for you. He's such a big tough guy, he's got a heart like a teddy bear."
Just don't expect him to do a stand-up routine—that's not his style, according to Clarke. "He's always ready for a joke, but he's not the first one to tell them."
"I leave it up to the professionals," Neely says, with a laugh.