Roger Neilson dies at age 69

From the Globe and Mail: http://www.globeandmail.ca

Popular NHL assistant coach dies

By ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Globe and Mail Update

Nashville — They say the measure of a man is the number of friendships he’s developed in his lifetime. If that is indeed the case, then Roger Neilson – the Ottawa Senators’ assistant coach who passed away Saturday afternoon in Peterborough, Ont. after a lengthy battle with cancer at the age of 69 – may have been one of the most beloved men to walk the face of the earth.

The proof, if proof were ever needed, came last June when a dozen of his closest friends organized a tribute to Neilson. They held it in Toronto, a day before the National Hockey League’s annual awards dinner, to make it easier for people to attend, which they did, in record numbers.

They filled the Metro Convention Centre for video tributes and speeches and presentations.

Funnyman Harry Neale, who worked with Neilson for years in their Vancouver Canucks’ days, was the master of ceremonies, but he was so overcome by emotion so many times that he let his good friend Roger steal the show.

Neilson always had this sneaky, self-deprecating sense of humor and when it came time for him to respond to the barbs sent his way, he scanned the crowd and suggested that everyone he’d ever said hello to in his lifetime had turned up for the event.

Legendarily tight with a dollar, Neilson then quipped that at $125 per ticket, it must be an NHL production – what other organization would set the price so outrageously high?

Commissioner Gary Bettman interrupted the NHL’s entry draft Saturday afternoon, after the 12th pick, to announce the news of Neilson’s death by calling for a moment of silence. The building, raucous up until that point, was subdued.

Moments later, Los Angeles Kings’ general manager Dave Taylor also paid tribute to Neilson, a former coach of the team, offering his condolenses to Neilson’s family.

Jacques Martin, the Ottawa Senators’ head coach, said of his long-time assitant: “Roger was such an influence on me and he had an impact on our game. He influenced so many people, it’s unfortunate.

“I knew his condition was deteriorating. He battled right to the end and showed tremendous courage. It’s very sad. He was such a positive individual.”

In a statement, Senators’ president Roy Mlakar, who had become a close friend of Neilson’s in recent years, said: “We are greatly saddened by the loss of not only a coaching legend, but a great friend and a man whoĆ­s touched many with his spirit across the world. He will be greatly missed.”

Neilson was, in his lifetime, a devout Christian, but never heavy-handed about his beliefs. On that night back in June, he spoke emphatically about his faith and how it had gave him the strength to battle the series of cancers which eventually took his life.

Neilson understood that not everyone in attendance shared his thoughts and ideas about spirituality, but he spent five minutes talking about his relationship with God anyway, advising anyone who was looking for answers in their private lives to give Him a chance.

This being Toronto, Neilson also joked about his sometimes stormy relationship with former Leaf owner Harold Ballard.

What would Ballard think if he were looking down upon the scene that night?

“I think, with Harold, I’m sure he’s probably looking up instead of looking down,” Neilson said that day.

But the next day, when Neilson was elected to the Hockey Hall Of Fame as a builder, Neilson recalled a kindness that Ballard extended to his own father when the latter was dying of cancer.

“When my father was nearing the end and I was just starting to coach the Leafs, Harold said: ‘Look, as soon as he’s ready and we can get him in to see a game, we’ll have a limo up there and we’ll do this and we’ll do that.’ Harold was always really good that way.”

Neilson coached his 1,000th NHL game on the final night of last year’s regular season – temporarily filling in for Martin – and was involved with a dozen NHL teams in a series of different capacities, including eight different turns as a head coach.

In 1999, Neilson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer, and needed among other things, a bone marrow transplant. He also developed skin cancer, the result of a lifetime of being outdoors, in the sun, usually in raggedy old shorts and T-shirts, with a well-worn baseball cap perched on his head.

He was highly regarded on a personal and professional level by his many colleagues and peers and won the Order Of Canada last year for his contributions to the game.

Some – such as the use of video – had an enduring influence on the way NHL coaches prepare for games. Others – such as using a defenceman instead of a goaltender to play a penalty shot – forced leagues to rewrite their rulebooks.

Jim Gregory, chairman of the Hockey Hall Of Fame committee and the NHL’s senior vice president of hockey operations, gave Neilson his first professional coaching job, hiring him to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs’ minor-league affiliate in Dallas in the 1976. A year later, Gregory gave Neilson his first NHL head coaching job, with the Maple Leafs, in the 1977-78 season, a Leafs’ team which also included Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, two fellow Hall of Famers.

In McDonald’s mind, the measure of just how much respect Neilson commanded from his players occurred the year Ballard tried to fire him during a mid-season slump.

McDonald recalled playing against Montreal on a night when Neilson needed a victory to keep his job. The Leafs played hard and lost 1-0 and on the way home from Montreal, Sittler, McDonald and others called owner Harold Ballard repeatedly, trying to get him to change his mind and keep Neilson on.

In the end, Ballard relented to the players’ pressure. However, in Ballard’s mind, this controversy also represented a marketing opportunity – the papers were full of speculation over the muddled firing/non-firing – so he wanted to keep television audiences in suspense until game time on a Saturday night.

Ballard’s thought was that Neilson should wait until just before game time, then walk onto the Leafs’ bench, wearing a paper bag over his head – and as soon as the television cameras were trained on him, pull it off and reveal that he had indeed kept his job.

Neilson’s endless fascination with the rulebook constantly forced the powers-that-be in whatever league he happened to be coaching in to revise and clarify every time Neilson found a loophole. Example: For a penalty shot, he’d put a defenceman in the crease instead of a goaltender, instructing him to rush the shooter as soon as the latter crossed the blueline, to hurry him into a mistake.

Once, when his team was already two players short with under two minutes to remaining in the game, Neilson kept sending players over the boards, constantly getting delay-of-game penalties. The strategy worked to take time off the clock and upset the other team’s flow and it didn’t matter how many penalties he was taking at that late stage in the game.

Nowadays, if a coach tried that tactic, the opposition would be awarded a penalty shot.

McDonald once recalled a time when the Leafs were playing Pittsburgh and found themselves down 5-1 midway through the game. When the Penguins took back-to-back penalties in the second period, Neilson called his players over to the bench to tell them he was pulling the goaltender.

“We’re all saying, ‘what?'” reported McDonald, “but Roger said, ‘Yup, we need to score on both of these power plays to get back in the game.’ Then he said to the goalie, ‘by the way, when you leave the crease, just leave your stick there on your way to the bench, just in case.’ We think, ‘he’s totally lost it’ but sure enough, we’re going six-on-three and we score on the first one and then before we scored the second one, one of their penalty-killers shot it down the ice and they would have scored, except it hit the goalstick and deflected wide. Then we score the second one and it’s 5-3. We made it 5-4 and we pulled the goalie late in the game and now we had a chance to tie it. Even though we lost, Roger won because he made believers out of us all.

“I’ll never forget that game.”

According to Neale, Neilson also devised a little-known strategy for changing players on the fly, so he could match lines, a practice that wasn’t all that common before he arrived in the NHL.

“Roger would use the back-up goalie, who was sitting on the end of the bench, to signal forwards on the ice when it was time to come off for a change,” said Neale. “Whenever the back-up goalie put his blocker hand over the boards – it was down two feet – that meant change on the fly.

“Some coaches would whistle, quite often the coach will tell the guys beforehand what he wanted them to do, but that was a neat little way of doing it that didn’t bring call attention to anybody.”

Video is now an everyday part of the game, but Neilson was the first to use it on a regular basis to break down games.

“In the old days, I remember when he was working with me in Vancouver, it was a four-hour exercise after the game to get the tape broken down on the old machines, running it back and forth, to get it into a finished product, so you’re not making the players watch it for four hours,” said Neale.

“Now, they have sophisticated machinery that does it while the game is going on, but … I can remember the gymnastics he went through to get game tapes from other teams, because we didn’t have satellite dishes in those days, where you could tape your own game if you were playing the team next.”

It was a year ago now when I asked Neilson about his innovations. Were they mainly just flashes of inspiration? Or did he busily pour over the rulebook, trying to find loopholes he could exploit?

“I think you’re always trying to win,” replied Neilson. “In junior, on the long bus trips, I often liked to read the rulebook. I still think coaches should be reading the rulebook through once a month. You always find things you don’t know. I think the players expect you to know them. It’s embarrassing when something comes up and you’re not sure about it.”

What happened that first time he decided to use a defenceman instead of a goaltender to stop a penalty shot?

“That night, we were going into an exhibition game and we had a penalty shot against us,” replied Neilson, “so we said, let’s try it. It ended up, there were six that season and he stopped them all. That’s how that one happened.

“I remember the one in Hamilton, with the too-many-men-on-the-ice. We were two men short, with two minutes to go so we were going to be two men short for the rest of the game. It was a playoff game and we were facing elimination, so we threw out some extra players because there was no further penalty they could give you. So they had to change the rule there. That one just came from wanting to win real bad and getting an idea on the spot.”

Neilson, the first NHL coach to use video on a regular basis, added that he could hardly work the equipment anymore because it’s become so sophisticated.

“But I think the game is on the right track. Most of the things they’ve tried to do now are working. There’s always going to be discussions on whether the defence is getting ahead of the offence. But the coaches who are experts on offence are always trying to find ways to beat the defence and the defensive coaches are trying to find ways to stop the offence. That’s the way it’s always going to be.

“Offensive players should always have to work hard to get through the defence, whether it’s the trap or hard hitting. I don’t think there’s much wrong with our game. It’s heading in the right direction. Right now, I feel good about the game.”

**My take: What would have been a very, very sad day for hockey will probably be overshadowed by the draft. Although Neilson wasn’t the most successful coach he was by far one of the most innovative. My favourite Neilson memory occurred when I was only two years old, so I obviously didn’t see it live, but it would have to be when he put the white towel on the hockey stick during the Canucks’ playoff game in Chicago to dispute what he thought was a terrible job by the refs. When the Canucks got back to Vancouver everyone had a white towel and the team ended up in the finals against the New York dynasty of the early 80s.


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