For a career hockey coach, draft day has to be one of the highlights of the year. However, this year's draft day was filled with sadness as one of the classiest of those coaches, Roger Neilson died. Neilson, had been battling skin and bone cancer for several years died in his home in Peterborough, Ontario June 21st, he was 69.
Neilson's death was announced by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman 90 minutes into the NHL draft. "We'll miss you, Roger,'' Bettman told the crowd, which stood for a moment of silence.
Roger Neilson was an NHL coach or scout each of the last 25 seasons but never won a Stanley Cup. This year, he completed his third season as an assistant with the Senators.
He reached the Stanley Cup playoffs 11 times in his 15 seasons as a head coach.
"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,'' Bettman said in a statement.
The Senators were Roger Neilson's 10th different NHL team, their inability to win the Cup this season, for Neilson was a source of considerable dismay for the player, as they lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the New Jersey Devils in 7 games. Roger Neilson was forced to miss most of the Senators playoff run due to his illness.
Roger Neilson, had become stooped and gaunt and wore a baseball cap to cover his bare head, Neilson was a motivational force. He spoke to the Senators before their Game 5 victory over the Devils. Defenseman Chris Phillips, in tears after the Senators were eventually eliminated, recalled what Neilson meant.
It wasn't something we talked about every day,'' Phillips said. "But every guy in this room knew it. I feel terrible. This was the team that was going to be able to do that, win one for Rog, and we let him down.''
Senators president and chief executive Roy Mlakar called Neilson a "great friend and a man who's touched many with his spirit across the world.''
Roger Neilson was elected last year to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders' category. "It was so unexpected,'' he said at the time. "You just wonder why you were picked when there are so many others that may seem to have done more.''
Scotty Bowman, with the most wins of any NHL coach, said Neilson never got the credit he deserved as a tactician and coach, in part, because he worked for so many teams. Bowman said Neilson had been receiving 24-hour care the past few weeks but still sent a 20-second video for a coaching clinic. "Hockey life and Roger were intertwined, and that's probably what kept him going so long,'' Bowman said.
Few did more in as many places as Neilson. His career began in Toronto where he led the Maple Leafs from 1977-79, after that it was off to Buffalo where he coached the Buffalo Sabres in 1980/81. From 1981-84, Neilson coached the Vancouver Canucks leading them on a improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982.
Following his tenure in Vancouver he finished 1984 with the Los Angeles Kings, where he lasted a mere games. His next head coaching job would come 5 year with the New York Rangers where he coached an up and coming team until 1993, winning the President's Trophy in 1993. After leaving the Rangers he coached the expansion Florida Panthers from 1993-1995. His last head-coaching job would come with the Philadelphia Flyers from 1997-2000. His tenure in Philly would end in controversy when he was fired while receiving treatments for his cancer.
After leaving Philadelphia Roger Neilson became an assistant with the Ottawa Senators when he briefly filled in for Jacques Martin as Ottawa's head coach to reach No. 1,000. Only nine coaches have hit that plateau. "I've been really lucky to be able to be in hockey all my life doing the thing I love,'' Neilson said.
Neilson was labeled "Captain Video'' for introducing videotape as a teaching tool. He was regarded as a player's coach, and his loud ties behind the bench became a fashion fixture.
As with many great coaches, Roger Neilson was great at bending the rules. Once sending out a full complement of skaters in the dying minutes of a hockey game when his team was supposed to be 2 men short. What could the referees do? They couldn't make him play 3 men short. Another time he sent out a defenseman, Ron Stackhouse, to defend against a penalty shot. The strategy worked. In would get his goaltenders to leave their sticks lying across the goal line when being pulled for an extra attacker.
Moves like this earned him the nickname Rule Book Roger, because every time he discovered a loophole, the rulebook had to be revised. Which led to one of Roger Neilson's most famous lines, "There are two things you don't want to know in life, what goes into hot dogs and what goes on in the NHL's New York office."
The NHL "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,'' Bettman said.
Roger Neilson was once asked what team he would like to be linked with on his Hall of Fame plaque, if there were such a requirement for members. "I didn't stay anywhere long enough,'' he said.
Source: ESPN.com and Slam.com
©2003 Tank Productions.