Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Roger Neilson - The Pinnacle
One on One Treasure Chest Pinnacle

Roger Neilson led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final in 1982.
(Paul Bereswill/HHOF)
The platitudes for Roger Neilson, both as a man and a hockey coach, are ceaseless. Yet, Neilson was head coach of eight different National Hockey League squads. "He was very good at being fired," wrote the New York Times. "By that I mean, he always took it with grace. He didn't get mad at anybody or burn any bridges."

More importantly, the players he met at each stop will never forget the curious man who walked to the beat of a different drummer, yet devoted his life to improving the game and those in it. For that, Roger Neilson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 4, 2002.

At the time, word had already spread that Neilson was being challenged by the most ominous opponent he would ever face – cancer. Multiple myeloma to be precise. The terminal nature of the disease would eventually claim Roger's life. So, seven months prior to his death, the Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Gala served as a very warm opportunity for friends, colleagues and fans to witness the sincerity, humility and wit of one of hockey's finest coaches.

Roger Neilson behind the bench of the Vancouver Canucks.
(Paul Bereswill/HHOF)
Roger, anything but a clotheshorse, purchased a special tie for the occasion – a wild, gaudy bowtie that was in line with the ties that had become his trademark.

His speech was classic Neilson. "Doctors told me I should avoid excitement," he quipped. "So I watch Leaf games." The crowd roared, including Toronto coach Pat Quinn, sitting in Roger's sightlines.

"When I consider what is happening this evening, I gotta be the luckiest guy in the whole world," he began in earnest. "I was just a Junior 'B' goalie with limited skills. Then I got the chance to coach Peterborough Petes, one of the top junior franchises in the whole country.

"And then, twenty-five years, or whatever it is, in the NHL and had the chance to coach some of the greatest players in the game, and work with some of the top coaches and managers in the gasme. It's been a great ride.

"Of all the pro sports, hockey has got to be the most exciting game. It's played on ice with skates. When you put in the stick skills and the physical play, it's the best game. And not only that but it's got the best people. You talk to any hotel operator or bus driver or the airline people; they'll tell you every time that hockey guys are the best."

Roger Neilson – definitely one of the best people ever to populate a hockey rink. His Hall of Fame induction, joined that year by Bernie Federko, Clark Gillies and Rod Langway, was the pinnacle of an extraordinary life in hockey.

Roger Neilson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. (Dave Sandford/HHOF)

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