NHL 36: James Neal

James Neal has become one of the most popular Penguins players in Pittsburgh this season, stemming from his personable attitude, broad smile and 30 goals. But fans have been limited to seeing only what Neal has done on the ice.

Until now.

Thanks to the NBC Sports Network, fans now have had a chance to witness 36 hours of Neal’s life, both on and off the ice. The new series NHL 36 featured Neal in its latest edition on Wednesday before the Penguins evening matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If you’re a Pens fan, you need to see this show. And even if you’re not a hockey fan, it’s still worth catching. This 30-minute chronicle mirrors HBO’S Emmy-winning “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” but focuses on a single player over a 36-hour span.

The show covered nearly two full days of James Neal’s life, in which the Penguins play twice. Some of the episode covers the on-ice action where Neal is mic’d up, but much of it is focused on his digs in Pittsburgh and just what he is up to before and after the games.

In the morning, Neal heads a few houses over to defenseman Paul Martin’s house for a pregame breakfast of eggs, toast and OJ. We find out later that this visit is likely because Neal rarely has more than Gatorade and beer in his own fridge.

We also learn the secret behind Nealer’s trademark messy hair: some gel and little other attention. “I don’t want to lose my hair,” Neal says. “I only wash it about once a week because it takes all the natural grease out of it…I probably shouldn’t say that on-camera, though.”

Once he arrives at the Consol Energy Center, we find that Neal’s teammates consider him as a “little brother” on the team so he often falls victim to pranks (including one where an anonymous teammate ties a number of water bottles to the back bumper of Neal’s Mercedes).

Before taking the ice for the pregame warm-up, Neal plays “two touch,” a game played by a group of Penguins in a circle with a soccer ball. Pascal Dupuis admits that Neal “has the best wrist shot of anyone I’ve seen,” but is probably the worst player when it comes to two-touch.

After the an 8-1 trouncing of Tampa Bay – in which Neal notches three assists – the 24-year-old heads out to a local steakhouse with some family and friends. The meal is a celebration not only of the latest Pens win, but also because of Neal’s recent contract extension, which keeps him in Pittsburgh for six years at the price tag of $30 million.

The show concludes after a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, showing a smiling Neal signing post-game autographs, followed by one final check behind his bumper for more water bottles. Neal’s likeability just jumps off the screen, almost as much as his play on the ice.

So far the series has featured Neal, Mike Richards of the Las Angeles Kings, Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Redwings, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Patrick Kane.

Although I’ve only seen the latest episode, I’ll be sure to check out the previous NHL 36 editions. If the rest are anything like Neal’s, they will all be well worth my time.

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