Classy Canadian Neal Martin excelled in the Superleague and the Elite League, with six straight All-Star awards – four on the first team – numerous ‘best defenceman’ titles, plus three league and two play-off winners’ medals.
One of the finest rearguards to play in Britain, taking few penalties, he was the consummate professional, and his skills and outgoing personality made him popular with fans and team-mates alike.
After five seasons in the Ontario (junior) Hockey League, he turned pro in 1996 and spent three seasons in the North American minor leagues. His coach at Chicago Wolves suggested his skills were better suited to European hockey and in 1999 put him in touch with Chris McSorley, who had just been appointed coach of the Superleague’s London Knights.
On a roster studded with colourful and undisciplined players, Martin stood out as ‘a blueliner who went about his task with little fuss but great effectiveness’. He took only 24 penalty minutes in 54 games, winning the Knights’ Most Valuable Player award and the votes of the sport’s journalists for their All-Star ‘B’ team. That year, the Knights contested the Benson and Hedges Autumn Cup final and won the Superleague Play-off Championship in Manchester.
Appointed captain in his second season, he won more plaudits for his contributions, being voted the team’s Best Defenceman and the fans’ Favourite Player. He also impressed the European judges who voted him Best Defenceman in the Continental Cup when London tied on points with champions Zurich Lions.
With Neal scoring the game-tying goal in the semi-final, he and the Knights reached the Superleague Play-off Final again – this time in Nottingham – but were knocked out by Sheffield Steelers.
He and McSorley both moved to Europe in 2001. Martin enjoyed three seasons in the German DEL and Austria before he was recruited by Coventry Blaze coach Paul Thompson “because he’s a winner”. Thommo’s faith was rewarded: Neal’s passing, penalty killing and positional play were key factors in the Blaze lifting the Grand Slam of Elite League, Play-off Championship and Challenge Cup in 2004-05.
He was showered with awards again, picking up no fewer than five – the league and the Blaze voted him their Player of the Year and Best Defenceman, and the sport’s writers picked him on defence for their All-Star ‘A’ team.
With Martin on their blue-line the Blaze won seven trophies in four seasons, including the Elite League and Challenge Cup in 2006-07 and 2007-08, while he dominated the club’s awards dinners and was a constant on the hockey reporters’ All-Star ‘A’ teams. Coach Thompson declared: “He’s a big reason for the success we’ve had here.”
His hockey career ended with two seasons, 2008-10, in the Danish league with AaB Aalborg.
Neal Martin was born on 8 September 1975 in Sudbury, Ontario. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.