GOODBYE TO A LEGEND

 

The sports world has lost an icon, a great friend, and indispensable asset to the game of hockey.  Roger Neilson was a warrior in his own right, not just with the cancer which was ultimately his demise, but both on the ice and behind the bench.  He was not only a great ambassador to the game, but to sports in general.  He revolutionized hockey and sports in many ways we take for granted.

The news obviously came as a shock, while we were supposed to be solely centered in on the NHL draft in Nashville.  Rightfully so, a moment of silence was in order as Gary Bettman regrettably delivered the news.

"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 counseled, the coaches he molded, the changes his imagination inspired and the millions of fans he entertained."

For the better part of fifty years, Neilson did what he was able to do best – coaching.  While he coached both baseball and hockey teams in Toronto en route to a degree in physical education at Hamilton’s McMaster University, hockey was his life.  He managed to coach as many as ten NHL teams.  Known as an innovator who would try anything to win, he pioneered video as a means of helping his team learn.  Many hours would be spent analyzing game tapes to try and exploit weaknesses of the opposing team.  This earned him the nickname “Captain Video”.  By the early 1980s, every team in the NHL followed suit, implementing video in their own coaching strategies.

Scotty Bowman gave Neilson his first NHL job as part-time scout of the Montreal Canadiens in 1962.  Bowman was Montreal’s eastern Canada scout at the time, but felt he needed somebody else around to scout the Toronto Maple Leafs.  When he wasn’t scouting, Roger was busy delivering newspapers.

From there, Neilson gave up his paper route and scouting post and moved on to Peterborough, where he was named head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes in 1966. 

The league practically had to rewrite the rule book, as Roger was famous for coming up with innovative ways to gain an edge.  He would pull his goalie in the last minute of a game, and purposely have him leave his stick on the goal line.  One time the referees took exception to this and awarded a penalty shot to the other team, to which Neilson sent out a defenseman with instructions to rush the shooter.  Another time he had two players in the penalty box late in a game and snuck on a fourth skater because it didn’t matter how many penalties his team would take.  The rules stated there couldn’t be fewer than three skaters on the ice at any given time.  Roger was constantly attempting to find and exploit loopholes similar to these.

After ten years as head coach of the Petes, in 1976, Neilson got his first professional hockey coaching job with the Dallas Blackhawks of the Central Hockey League, who were affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  A year later, in 1977, Roger moved up to the NHL as coach of the Leafs.  As a rookie coach, he took a team which housed the likes of players such as Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sitler and Tiger Williams through a 41 win season and a first round playoff upset of the New York Islanders.  Darryl Sitler described Neilson as “the best coach I had in my professional career”.

In what became known as the infamous paper bag incident, Leafs owner Harold Ballard tried to get Neilson to wear a paper bag over his head during a home game.  Ballard apparently had told a reporter he was going to fire the coach, but the players would have nothing to do with it and threatened to walk off the job if in fact this was true.  Ballard gave in, but wanted to make an example of the coach.  To Roger’s credit, he refused to wear the bag, and appeared behind the bench in his usual fancy tie attire as if nothing had ever happened.

From Toronto, Neilson moved on to head coach teams in Buffalo, New York Rangers, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Florida, Philadephia and Ottawa.  The Senators gave him one game behind the bench on April 13, 2002 to give him an even 1,000 games coached.  He also worked as assistant coach in Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis and Ottawa.

I, along with many sports fans, will remember Roger Neilson most for the infamous white towel incident from 1982.  He was coaching the Vancouver Canucks, and his team was called for nine consecutive penalties during a playoff game against the Chicago Blackhawks.  In protest, Roger put a towel on the end of a hockey stick and held it up in surrender.  Neilson was ejected from the game and later fined by the NHL for the gesture, but up north in Vancouver, fans started waving towels of their own.  The Canucks rallied to win the series in six games and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.  Regrettably, the New York Islanders would win the Stanley Cup, but fans continue to wave towels in support of their home team to this day. 

Neilson never won a Stanley Cup, but was close many times.  His closest shot was with Vancouver during the aforementioned towel waving season.  He coached the New York Rangers to first overall in 1991-92, a team he himself called the best team he ever coached.  He was assistant coach to this past season’s Ottawa Senators who made it within one game of the Stanley Cup finals, partly due to his inspiring speech before Game 5 of the Conference Final series against the New Jersey Devils.  The Senators were down 3-1 against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Devils, and Roger told the players not to waste their chance at glory. 

"From a guy who only made it to the Stanley Cup finals once, he told us you have to know it's not a given 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 would win game five and game six to even the series.

Probably his biggest tie to a championship team was when he worked as a videotape analyst for the Edmonton Oilers in 1984, the year they won their first Stanley Cup.

He was, however, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category, and was given the Order of Canada for his contribution to hockey and Canadian society.  Earlier this year, a portion of Main Street in Peterborough was renamed Neilson Drive in his honor.  In the off-season he operated a coaches' clinic at the University of Windsor and a summer hockey camp that he founded in 1976.  He took everything he could from his experiences with the game and gave everything he had to it. 

Despite being diagnosed with both bone cancer in 1999 and skin cancer in 2000, Neilson always maintained a positive and upbeat attitude towards life and the game of hockey.  He along with everyone around him believed he could and would win the battle against the disease, even when it spread to his brain towards the end of 2002.  His courage was a testament to the man he was both on and off the ice.  I’m told you could never hope to meet a more pleasant person in the entire hockey world anywhere, anytime.

Roger was 69, and will be very dearly missed, his legacy never forgotten.

Next time you attend a hockey game, take a towel with you, and wave it in Neilson’s honor. 

 1934-2003

Some reaction from the hockey world:

“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...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 counseled, the coaches he molded, the changes his imagination inspired and the millions of fans he entertained.” - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

“I wouldn't be where I am today without Roger...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.” - NHL director of operations and former Peterborough Petes defenseman Colin Campbell

"Roger was a Hall of Famer in more ways than one and a good teammate and a real good friend. This is really tough...He just seemed to make everybody a little brighter when he was around. I think he was wonderful for hockey, innovative, a good friend and I'm just happy I had the pleasure of meeting him." - Ottawa Senators GM John Muckler

""He had a passion for the game...Roger, you know, never married. He was married to hockey...He battled right to the end. Hockey, life and Roger were intertwined and probably kept him going this long." - Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman

"He was an individual we can all get inspired by...He had such a high level of respect for human beings. He had his strong faith in his religion and he observed those principles on a daily basis. He was able to see the goodness in all of us." - Florida Panthers head coach Mike Keenan

"It's a sad day for hockey in Canada...He was a giant in hockey. He'll be sorely missed...This is a guy who had a heart of a lion " - Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke

"Roger was one that brought so much excitement to the rink every day, so much enthusiasm and new ideas...Some of his closest friends were kids that he taught in high school in Peterborough and there was something special about him as a person that left an impact on you." - Ottawa Senators coach Jacques Martin

“He's done a lot for North American hockey from coast to coast. It is a tragic loss.” - Ottawa Senators centre Brian Smolinski

 

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