Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Roger Neilson
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One on One with Roger Neilson

12 FEBRUARY 2010
Roger Neilson coached the Toronto Pee-Wee Shopsy's Pee-Wee team in 1954-55. (HHOF)
Roger Neilson, the much-loved and much-travelled National Hockey League coach, has been immortalized for his innovative coaching, often employing non-traditional methods in trying to gain an edge over his opponents. His successes in life and at coaching led him to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Born June 16, 1934 in Toronto, Roger Paul Neilson was always an entrepreneurial spirit. By the time he was nine, he and his dog, Jacques, were delivering the Globe and Mail, growing the route to almost 850 subscribers, necessitating helpers. "It was a good business," Neilson recalled. "It just kept getting bigger and bigger." Roger maintained the route for 23 years, which later supported his income from being a full-time teacher. But while that was a busy schedule, he was also a good hockey player and was coaching.

Roger was a very good goaltender, and was part of the Toronto Marlboroughs chain as a youngster, but his religious family prohibited him from playing hockey on a Sunday and soon left the chain. He progressed as far as Junior 'B,' playing with the Woodbridge Dodgers. Broadcaster Harry Neale, who knew Neilson back then, recalled, "Hap Emms was coaching the Barrie Flyers at the time, and he wanted Roger to come up to Barrie for a tryout. Roger's Mom and Dad were very religious and didn't want him going where he'd have to play on a Sunday. I don't know whether that stopped him from pursuing a career in hockey, but Roger was a very religious guy, so I wouldn't be surprised."

Roger Neilson coached the Peterborough Petes in the 1970s leading the club to 1972 Memorial Cup final. (HHOF)
Roger's coaching career actually began as a 17-year-old student attending McMaster University in Hamilton. The adolescent coached both hockey and baseball. In fact, the Toronto Sun quoted a Neilson friend saying, "When it comes to Roger's likes, hockey would be third behind coaching baseball and delivering the Globe and Mail."

Through two decades beginning in 1951, Neilson guided various collections of youngsters through sporting pursuits, winning a number of baseball and hockey championships along the way. In the mid-sixties, Neilson's accomplishments caught the attention of Sam Pollock, general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, who hired Roger as a regional scout in the Toronto area. "I had a good midget team and the Canadiens wanted my players (for their junior affiliate in Peterborough)," chuckled Neilson. "To get my players, they made me a scout." In 1966, Roger was hired to work with the Peterborough Petes in player personnel. In December 1966, the team's coach, Roger Bedard, was suspended for six games for his role in an off-ice fight and Roger was asked to step in as temporary coach. Neilson and the Petes lost just once in those six contests, and when Bedard resigned later that season, Roger was hired as the full-time coach. True to form, he continued teaching high school while coaching the Petes.

Neilson quickly added his imprint on the Petes, shuffling the roster and nurturing various unique strategies. He tried various tactics to mystify opponents, including alternating goaltenders every five minutes, but it was in Peterborough where he first used video to evaluate his team, a trait that later earned him the tag, 'Captain Video.'

While filming games was something the Toronto Maple Leafs had done since the mid-1940s, it was extremely rare, and completely outside the realm of possibility in junior ranks ... unless you are Roger Neilson. The Peterborough Petes' coach continued to teach during the first seven of his ten seasons with the junior squad. "I was teaching high school and we used audio-video as a tool to teach," he stated in 'Roger's World.' "I thought, 'This would be good for our games,' and so we used to sneak it out of school at night and I'd get a couple of kids to run the equipment."

Innovative thinking became his trademark. He took the Petes to the Memorial Cup final in 1972, and was rewarded the next year by being named coach and general manager of the Petes.

Roger Neilson behind the bench of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Robert Shaver/HHOF)
In 1976, Roger Neilson was hired as coach and general manager of the Dallas Blackhawks of the Central Hockey League, an affiliate of both the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. Dallas finished third that season, and went to the Adams Cup final, losing to the Fort Worth Texans in overtime in the seventh game. During that season, Neilson so impressed Jim Gregory, GM of the Maple Leafs, that on July 25, 1977, he was hired to replace Red Kelly as coach of the Maple Leafs. "It never really hit me until one day around the end of training camp, I was walking through the end reds behind the net (at Maple Leaf Gardens) and I stopped and said to myself, 'Hey, I'm the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs!'"

Roger engineered the Leafs to a fine season in 1977-78, winning 41, losing 29 and tying 10. Only the season before, the team had finished one win over .500. The team beat the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs, then eliminated the New York Islanders on an overtime goal by Lanny McDonald in Game Seven. Although Toronto was defeated by Montreal in the semi-finals, it was the first time the franchise had progressed that far in the post-season since their Stanley Cup triumph in 1967.

Then, late in Roger's second season behind the Leafs bench, he was fired by owner Harold Ballard. "We lost in Montreal on a Thursday night. After the game, Harold Ballard told the TV announcers that he was going to fire me. I asked our GM, Jim Gregory, and he said, 'Yeah, you're done,'" Neilson recounted in his biography. The next morning, Neilson showed up at the rink to clear out his office and was surrounded by a horde of sports reporters, but no one from Leafs management was there. "I had to announce my own firing. It was a bizarre situation."

But even more bizarre was the fact that the team hadn't hired a replacement. Although he was fired on March 1, 1979, he was rehired on March 3! During the national anthem of the Saturday night game on 'Hockey Night in Canada,' there was no coach behind the Toronto bench. Roger had resisted a scheme by Ballard to wear a paper bag over his head, then remove it just before the opening faceoff to the astonishment of fans.

"I must admit that at the time, I was embarrassed being a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs," admitted Ron Ellis. Nonetheless, when Neilson emerged behind the bench, he was greeted by thunderous applause. Roger kept his job with the Leafs until the conclusion of the season, a second round playoff loss to Montreal, and then was summarily fired for good on April 22, 1979.

Roger Neilson during his time with the Buffalo Sabres. (Robert Shaver/HHOF)
Roger wasn't out of work long. A day later, he was hired by Scotty Bowman to coach the Buffalo Sabres for the 1979-80 season. The two strong-willed men butted heads, and Neilson's tenure with the Sabres lasted but one season.

In 1981-82, Roger served as an assistant coach to Harry Neale with the Vancouver Canucks. The succession plan was for GM Jake Milford to retire and be replaced by Neale, allowing Roger to assume the head coaching duties. The plan was altered somewhat when Harry Neale was suspended for his role in a brawl with a fan in Quebec City, and Neilson took over the position with five games left in the season, then continued into the post-season. The Canucks caught fire in the playoffs under Neilson, rolling over the Calgary Flames, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks.

During Game Two in the series with Chicago, Neilson and the Canucks believed they were being penalized unfairly by referee Bob Myers, then lost a goal on a phantom offside. Neilson insisted his players stay on the bench and not skate out for the ensuing faceoff. Then, noticing the towels hanging behind the team's bench, grabbed Jim Nill's hockey stick, placed a towel on the butt end and waved it at the officials as a sign of surrender. Several players followed suit. All the towel wavers were ejected. But that started a phenomenon. Returning home to Vancouver, the team was greeted by hundreds of fans waving white towels. And before the commencement of Game Three, the Vancouver Coliseum was a sea of white towels being waved in support of their beleaguered coach. "I had no idea what I was starting," Roger later said.

Roger Neilson is all smiles following the Canucks win over the Chicago Blackhawks and earning a birth in the 1982 Stanley Cup Final. (Paul Bereswill/HHOF)
Vancouver went on to defeat the Hawks, but in the Stanley Cup final, bowed out to the powerful New York Islanders, who were in year three of their four-year dynasty.

In January 1984, Roger was dismissed by the Canucks. He first took a role breaking down videos for the Los Angeles Kings, then performed the same function with the Edmonton Oilers during the 1984 playoffs, an important role as the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup championship. He served as an assistant to coach Orval Tessier with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1984-85, then served for two more seasons under Bob Pulford in Chicago. Roger was a pro scout with the Blackhawks for two seasons, but was enticed with the job of head coach with the New York Rangers in 1989-90.

Neilson served as the Rangers' coach for three-and-a-half seasons. During that time, New York won the Patrick Division title 1989-90 and in 1991-92, the Rangers finished first overall, winning the Presidents' Trophy. That season, he was runner-up as the NHL's coach of the year.

Midway through the 1992-93 season, Roger's tenure with the Rangers came to a conclusion when he and captain Mark Messier butted heads. "There was that tension between them and it made you uneasy," related Colin Campbell, assistant coach to Neilson that season. "They wouldn't say anything but you knew something was wrong." Mike Keenan, who had also once coached the Peterborough Petes, later assumed the coaching role and road Neilson's team to a Stanley Cup championship in 1994. "Neilson taught them how to check and play disciplined hockey," wrote author Wayne Scanlon in 'Roger's World,' "lessons that didn't leave them when they opened up their game under Keenan." It was Roger's longest tenure as a coach: 280 games.

Months later, Neilson's coaching career was rejuvenated a few months later when he was hired to coach the expansion Florida Panthers. Roger instituted a highly defensive system, and in doing so, the Panthers set regular season records for a first-year club, winning 33 and earning 83 points, way above expectations. "He loved that team," suggested friend Nancy Nichols. The team missed the playoffs by a single point in that inaugural season. That feat was repeated in the second season, but Roger was fired at the end of that campaign. "I've been fired pretty much every way there is," he stated at his Hall of Fame induction. "The ones that hurt the most are the ones where you don't figure it should happen, or out of the blue, like in Florida." He added, "When you're underachieving, the coach often takes the hit, but when you're overachieving and you still get fired, it's tough."

Roger Neilson behind the New York Rangers bench has word for the officials. (Paul Bereswill/HHOF)
Turning down a scouting position with the Panthers, Roger was hired as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues, serving first under Mike Keenan and then rookie coach, Joel Quenneville. Then, on March 9, 1998, he took over the head coaching responsibilities with the Philadelphia Flyers. Implementing a solid system, the team won 45 games in 1999-2000 and looked like they were bound for a Stanley Cup celebration. But star Eric Lindros suffered four concussions that season and the plan unravelled. So did Neilson's health.

Roger had flu symptoms never seemed to subside. A doctor's diagnosis provided the reason – Roger had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells. "I don't want people feeling sorry for me," he said at the time. "I've got strong religious beliefs. I believe God has plans for my life, and this happens to be part of it. If the plan is to beat it, then I'm going to give everything I've got to beat it. If that's not in the plans, then at least in the games up in Heaven, we won't have to put up with Kris King and Tie Domi."

On February 19, 2000, Neilson underwent a stem cell transplant. Craig Ramsay, an assistant coach, took over as interim head coach of the Flyers. While Neilson was declared ready to return, the team had done well in his absence, and general manager Bobby Clarke held off on replacing Ramsay behind the bench. Roger was livid, but Clarke was steadfast, and told TSN, "We didn't tell him to get cancer. It's too bad that he did, and we feel sorry for him, but then he went goofy on us."

Roger Neilson behind the bench of the Ottawa Senators. (Ottawa Senators/HHOF)
Relieved of his position, Roger Neilson was subsequently hired by the Ottawa Senators for what would be his final NHL position. Employed by an eighth NHL team was overwhelming. As assistant coach of the Ottawa Senators, Rogers aided head coach Jacques Martin. In one of the classiest moves in hockey's legendary history, Martin was informed that his assistant was two games shy of coaching in 1,000 regular season NHL games. Martin stepped aside for the final two games of the 2001-02 season to allow Neilson to become just the ninth NHL coach to reach that hallowed plateau. Roger and the Senators beat the Bruins in game 999. Toronto defeated the Senators in game 1,000.

Roger's health deteriorated by the start of the 2002-03 season, and by December, doctors drilled into his skull to address four separate brain tumours. Yet, Roger continued in his role as assistant coach for Ottawa. "He's been through more than I'd even want to think about facing, but you never hear him feeling sorry for himself," stated Wade Redden. The Senators went on to finish first overall during the regular season.

Fragile and weak, Roger was so sick he could barely watch the playoffs that spring. Before Game Five of the semi-final against the New Jersey Devils, he shuffled into the dressing room and addressed the team. Quietly, he talked about the fragility of life, and how it was important to seize every moment. Shaken but inspired, the Senators went out and captured a 3-1 victory over the Devils while Roger watched the game on TV at his home. Ottawa won again in Game Six to tie the series but lost late in Game Seven, allowing Roger's dreams of winning the Stanley Cup to evaporate.

In the end of season announcement, the Senators stated that the coaching staff, including Neilson, would return for the 2003-04 season, but insiders knew it was highly unlikely that Roger would see the opening game of that next season.

He didn't. Roger Neilson died on June 21, 2003. But fortunately for all, especially Roger, in 2002, he received the Order of Canada, the most prestigious civilian award given to Canadians, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the greatest honour in the hockey world.

Neilson's gift to the game was his absolute devotion to hockey. Whether it was his many NHL coaching roles, that saw him behind the bench for 460 wins, 381 losses and 159 ties through the NHL regular season, or the time he lavished on youth hockey, both for players and coaches, Roger ate, breathed and slept the sport. The eccentric and enterprising will always be regarded as a pioneer, and one of the greats of the game.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.