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Ottawa winger Chris Neil battles in front of the Minnesota net last month. On Saturday, he’ll play his 1,000th NHL game.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

From the time he was a child in elementary school, Chris Neil was determined to play in the NHL.

The hard-nosed Ottawa forward not only made it to the NHL, he's set to become just the 52nd player to reach the 1,000-game plateau with the same team. Neil, who first cracked the Senators' lineup in 2001, will reach the milestone Saturday night in Los Angeles.

"When you first start out you're just excited to get your first game," Neil said Thursday. "And before you know it, you have 100 and then 500 and then over the years they just keep accumulating, and then it's a pretty exciting accomplishment.

"Being with the Senators my whole career has been awesome, it's been an honour to suit up for one team."

Drafted in the sixth round (161st over all) of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, Neil has scored 112 goals and added 136 assists over his career. He also sits 22nd on the league's career list with 2,492 penalty minutes.

Neil was known as an enforcer-type in his early days. Now 37, he has found a way to remain effective at both ends of the ice as the league has shifted away from fighting.

"When the game started to change I knew I had to trim down weight-wise and [I] dropped 15 pounds and it's made a difference for me," he said. "I've always worked hard and take pride in my conditioning, and make sure to work hard in the off-season and keep myself in the best shape possible, and I think that's paid off, especially later in my career. "

A solid fourth-line player, Neil understands the game is changing. But he still values the importance of players who are willing to stand up for teammates.

"It's the toughest job in hockey because you can never take a night off," he said. "I have so much respect for the guys I have to go up against. It doesn't matter if you have friends on the other team, you're going out and playing hard and trying to keep guys honest. Hopefully I've got lots left in me."

Neil's work doesn't go unnoticed by teammates and this next milestone will be meaningful for many.

"It's a huge accomplishment, especially for the type of role Chris has," centre Zack Smith said. "He fights, checks, goes in dirty areas and that's hard on the body and hard on the mind. It's not easy to play that kind of game and to do it for 1,000 games is a huge accomplishment for the style he plays."

Married and a father of three, Neil admits it is sometimes difficult explaining to his young children why he's fighting, but he's been honest with them about his role.

"They know it's sticking up for my teammates and it's something I take pride in," he said. "For me something has to happen if someone is taking liberties with our players, but thankfully a lot of time the kids are in bed and they're not watching the game. But they've seen [me fight] and they realize it's just a part of the game."

Once the fresh face in the locker room, Neil is now the grizzled veteran. While he enjoys the role, he's usually the first to pull a prank.

"He's an intense guy when it comes to the hockey part of it and will say what needs to be said, but outside of it he's carefree and lighthearted," Smith said. "Away from the rink he's the guy who always wants to pull a fast one and be a prankster. He's a big character, that's for sure."

There are few who enjoy a good laugh more than Neil, but even he knows there will be a time when he'll have to move on.

"Having the young guys keeps you young," he said. "I feel like I'm 20. I still think I'm one of the young guys and that's how I approach the game. When I'm not having fun any more I'll know that's when I'm done."