Most people associate turning 21 with symbolically becoming a full-fledged adult in charge of their own lives. For hockey legend Cam Neely, the milestone instead meant being ordered to move more than 3,000 miles across North America, whether he liked it or not.
On June 6, 1986--his 21st birthday--Neely learned he had been traded from the Vancouver Canucks to the Boston Bruins. The trade was a tough blow: He was born in the Vancouver area and spent his first three NHL seasons playing for the Canucks. But it was also an inflection point that led him to realize his unfulfilled potential and ultimately build a Hall of Fame career.
Neely had struggled in his early seasons, in part because the coaching staff gave him few chances to play with Vancouver's best players. The coaches in Boston had a completely different approach--and offered an important lesson in management.
"They said 'OK, let's see what this kid can do,' " Neely tells Inc. "Putting me in situations where I would have opportunities to produce gave me the confidence that I needed."
Paired up with better linemates on the Bruins, Neely started to become the elite scorer he had long been expected to be. In his first season, he led the team with 36 goals.
"Over the course of the year, I ended up with really good totals. That just fed my confidence and caused me to say, 'How else can I improve my game and how do I get better year after year?'" he says.
One way he maintained his success was by setting difficult, but achievable goals for himself. He'd aim for a certain number of points over a 10-game stretch, as well as for the whole season. By the time he retired in 1996, he had scored 344 goals with Boston, the fifth-most in the team's storied history. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005.
After his playing career ended, Neely used the lessons he had learned in other venues. He worked for a tech startup for a brief period, and increased his involvement with his charity, the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. In 2007 he joined the Bruins' front office, becoming president in 2010.
With Neely at the helm, the following year the team won the NHL's Stanley Cup. It was a championship that in some ways he can trace back to getting traded decades earlier.
"There was some doubt about where my career was headed," he says. "To this day it's still the best birthday gift I've received."