Roger Neilson: 1934-2003
Roger Neilson will be remembered by those who knew him as, first, a friend and, second, as a hockey innovator and coach.
He was such a likable character that, even though he never married and had no living relatives, more than 1,300 people showed up when a tribute dinner was held for him last June in Toronto.
``I've always felt that the measure of a man is in how many friends he has and tonight's turnout tells you all you need to know about Roger Neilson,'' said emcee Harry Neale, who grew up with Neilson in Toronto.
The evening was a highlight of Neilson's life, as was his induction last November into the Hockey Hall of Fame and his investiture in May into the Order of Canada. The honours came just in time.
Neilson, who turned 69 last Monday, succumbed to cancer on Saturday.
The NHL entry draft in Nashville, Tenn., was in progress when commissioner Gary Bettman interrupted the selection of players to convey the sad news. A moment of silence was observed.
"There is no way to measure accurately the number of lives Roger Neilson touched inside and outside the hockey world during his lifetime of devotion to our game, and there is no way to measure our sorrow at news of his passing," Bettman said in a statement. "Hockey has lost a great mind, a great spirit, a great friend.
"The NHL family mourns his loss but celebrates his legacy -- the generations of players he counselled, the coaches he moulded, the changes his imagination inspired and the millions of fans he entertained."
Neilson was diagnosed in January 2001 with malignant melanoma, which is the worst form of skin cancer. In December 1999, he had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and had a successful stem cell transplant in March 2000.
The double whammy of cancers slowed the active and popular Neilson in his last years.
Toward the end, the support of his many friends and his strong Christian faith enabled him to accept the inevitable with a positive attitude.
"I'm a lucky guy to have such loyal friends," he said in his after-dinner speech at the tribute dinner.
Neilson, who coached hockey teams for 50 years, was at one time or another head coach of 10 NHL clubs.
He was known for his quirky strategies against opponents, as the pioneer of video as a hockey teaching aid, and for his colourful and diverse collection of neckties.
He organized an annual coaching conference in Windsor, Ont., and operated hockey schools that included 1990s sessions in Israel. He was an avid Middle East history buff. On one of his trips there, he travelled through Africa with a band of friends and bungy-jumped into a river gorge from a bridge.
"He's managed to stay 16 forever," TV commentator Jim Hughson said at the tribute dinner.
As a boy, he and his friends used to hide in Maple Leaf Gardens following afternoon junior games and emerge to watch NHL games for free. They got away with it once in a while.
Neilson coached baseball and hockey teams in Toronto, and he graduated from McMaster University in Hamilton with a degree in physical education.
He got his first NHL job, a part-time scouting gig, from Scotty Bowman in 1962.
Bowman was Montreal's eastern Canada scout at the time, and he needed another pair of eyes around Toronto. Bowman remembers having difficult at certain times of the day reaching Neilson because of his newspaper routes that included hundreds of subscribers.
Neilson was named head coach of the OHL's Peterborough Petes in 1966.
The league had to change some rules during the 10 years Neilson coached the Petes. He thought up any edge he could get.
When he pulled a goalie in the last minute of a game, he'd have him lay his stick across the goalline and leave it there. Once, after an opposing team was awarded a penalty shot, he replaced his goalie with a defenceman and told him to rush the shooter.
When he had two players in the penalty box late in a game, he'd sneak on a fourth skater because it didn't matter how many penalties his team took at that stage since the rules said it couldn't have fewer than three skaters on the ice. The loopholes were all closed eventually, but Neilson never stop trying to find others.
"From the time I was 17 until now, I was just trying to win games," Neilson said at his Hockey Hall of Fame induction when the anecdotes were mentioned.
He spent hours analysing game videos to pick apart opponents' weaknesses, and to see where his own players might improve. He was a pioneer in the field, earning him the nickname Captain Video.
He also was among the first North American coaches to have his players do stretching before games and practices and to stress off-season fitness programs.
He once used his dog at the time, Jock, in an on-ice forechecking drill.
While he coached the Petes, he also worked as a high school phys-ed teacher. He always stressed to his players the importance of acquiring a university education, and he saw to it that the Petes contributed towards tuition at Trent University in Peterborough for any of his players interested in getting a degree.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without Roger," says Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of operations and a defenceman with Neilson's Petes. "He demanded quality and discipline in such a refreshing way that when you came away from a Roger experience you knew you were going to be at your best."
Neilson made his professional coaching debut in 1976 with the Dallas Blackhawks of the Central Hockey League, who were affiliated with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs.
He got his start behind NHL benches with the Leafs in 1977. In his first season, he took a team that included Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Tiger Williams and Mike Palmateer through a 41-win season, and a first-round playoff upset of the emerging New York Islanders.
"He was the best coach I had in my professional career," said former Leaf Darryl Sittler.
In one of the more memorable antics in NHL history, owner Harold Ballard tried to get Neilson to wear a paper bag over his head for a Leafs home game. Ballard had told a reporter he was going to fire Neilson but, after the players spoke against the move, Ballard retained him but wanted to milk the episode for all it was worth. To his everlasting credit, Neilson refused to wear the bag and returned to the bench in his normal attire of the time -- flashy tie below a bushy head of hair with long sideburns.
He went on to work as an NHL head coach with Buffalo, Vancouver, Los Angeles, the New York Rangers, Florida, Philadelphia and Ottawa -- the Senators giving him a game on April 13, 2002, so he could reach 1,000.
"I've been fired pretty well every way there is," he said.
He also was an assistant coach in Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis and Ottawa, where he was working until the ravages of cancer finally kept him from making it to the Corel Centre.
During the 1982 Stanley Cup playoffs coaching the Canucks, Neilson placed a white towel on the end of a stick in mock surrender to on-ice officials. Ever since, fans wave white towels in a show of support for the home team.
His favourite stop was Florida, where he took a collection of castoffs to a 33-34-17 expansion-season record on John Vanbiesbrouck's goaltending and stifling defensive play.
"Of all the places I've coached, it was probably my most enjoyable two years," he said. "There was a special bond there between us all and they all felt it and I did, too.
"It was a great experience."
He often lived close to his team's practice facility so he could cycle to work. He loved dogs, and boats. He maintained a cottage near Peterborough all of his adult life, and returned to it every summer. As a way of giving back to hockey, he owned a Jr. B team in Lindsay, Ont., where he operated hockey schools for many years.
At every level he coached, he stressed strong defensive play and in-your-face hockey. He could get worked up during the course of a game and more than once was called to task by the NHL for hurling sticks or whatever else was handy onto the ice to protest referees' calls.
If he had one regret, it was that he never coached a team that won the Stanley Cup. The closest he got was with the 1982 Canucks, who were swept in the final by the New York Islanders. In 1991-92, he coached the Rangers to first overall during the regular season. He considered that one to be the best NHL team he coached.
His closest tie to an NHL championship was his work as videotape analyst during the playoffs for the Edmonton Oilers in their first Cup conquest in 1984.
While coaching the Flyers in 1999, the bone cancer was discovered, and he had to be replaced by assistant Craig Ramsey for the end of the 1999-2000 season.
He hoped to return for the playoffs but was kept out by general manager Bob Clarke, who then let Neilson go after the season, prompting the then-65-year-old coach to say: "I don't think they want a cancer patient who is a friend of Eric Lindros right now."
Still, he didn't hold a grudge.
"It's too bad it ended that way," he said. "Bobby and I are still great friends today.
"One disagreement in three or four years of a relationship -- it's bound to happen."
He landed in Ottawa, and he was afflicted with skin cancer, requiring a new round of chemotherapy treatments.
Despite the health problems, he kept an upbeat personna when in public.
"You've never met a more humble person," longtime friend and current Petes GM Jeff Twohey told the Sporting News. "You sometimes forget when you're around him that this guy is one of the foremost innovators on hockey in the world."
When reports last December said cancer had spread to his brain, Neilson tried to downplay them.
"You just don't want people to worry about you and the team to worry about you," he said. "I just want to go about my business.
"We all know it's better for everybody if we just keep things to ourselves."
He began receiving outpatient treatments at an Ottawa hospital last November, and he said he was satisfied with the reports he was receiving from his doctors.
"You have to be positive about things," he said. "It's nice to have your Christian faith to help you through these things."
A section of Peterborough's main street was renamed Neilson Drive early in 2003.
Hockey was his life.
"This is the best game and, not only that, we've got the best people in the game," he said during his speech on the night of his Hall induction. "I experienced this personally in the past few years with my health problems. The hockey community gave unbelievable support."
He was always grateful to get the chance to work for the Senators. He was able to work only a few hours' drive from his summer home.
"They've proved to be a terrific organization," he said. "They really take care of their people.
"It couldn't have been a better fit."
Before Game 5 of the 2003 Eastern Conference final, with Ottawa down 3-1 to New Jersey, he gave a brief talk to the players to tell them not to waste their chance at glory.
"From a guy who only made it to the Stanley Cup finals once, he told us that you have to know that it's not a given that if you lose you'll be back the next year," said forward Shaun Van Allen. "It doesn't work that way. This might be your chance, so take it."
The Senators won that night, and again two nights later to even the series.