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Roger Neilson, CM (June 16, 1934 – June 21, 2003) was a National Hockey League coach, and was responsible for many innovations in the game. He is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category.

Born in Toronto, Ontario, after attending North Toronto Collegiate Institute, Neilson's coaching career began as a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and continued upon graduation with a degree in Physical Education in both hockey and baseball.

Roger Neilson
Born Roger Paul Neilson

June 16, 1934
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Died June 21, 2003 (aged 69)

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Occupation Former NHL coach

Coaching career[]

Neilson's coaching career began as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes (then the junior farm team of the Montreal Canadiens in Hamilton) in 1966, and remained for 10 years in Peterborough, Ontario, where he maintained a home until his death. He also worked at the University of Windsor with a summer hockey camp programme, which led to camps from Port Hope, Ontario to Israel.

Neilson moved into professional hockey coaching in Dallas with the Dallas Black Hawks in the Central Hockey League in 1976–1977.

Neilson was head coach in the NHL for:

  • Toronto Maple Leafs from 1977 to 1979 (following another eventual member of the Order of Canada, Red Kelly),
  • Buffalo Sabres for the 1980–81 season,
  • Vancouver Canucks from March 1982 to January 1984,
  • Los Angeles Kings from February to April 1984,
  • New York Rangers from 1989 to 1993,
  • Florida Panthers from 1993 to 1995,
  • Philadelphia Flyers from March 1998 to 2000,
  • Ottawa Senators for two games in April 2002. (Neilson was an Ottawa assistant coach, but was allowed to coach the final two games of the season so that he could hit the 1000 game mark)

In 1979, Neilson was actually fired as head coach of the Maple Leafs by then-owner Harold Ballard. There was outrage throughout the players, media, and general public. Ballard then relented. Ballard wanted Neilson to enter the next game with a paper bag over his head (to be "the mystery coach") but Neilson refused and coached the next game as if nothing had happened. (Future NHL coach Joel Quenneville, then a rookie defenceman for the Leafs, would score his first of 54 NHL career goals in that game.)

He was the head coacch with Vancouver. When the team went unbeaten in the next seven games, he was given the job permanently. It was in his new capacity that Neilson led the team on its run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

His tenure with the New York Rangers was also successful; the highlight was coaching the team to the Presidents' Trophy as the first place team in the league in 1992.

With Philadelphia, he led the team to first place in the Eastern Conference in 2000, a position that the team would retain for the rest of the regular season. With the Flyers leading in the conference standings by the mid-season All-Star Game, Neilson earned the honour of being head coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars. Previously, he had coached the Campbell Conference All-Stars at the 1983 All-Star Game.

In addition, he also worked for the Edmonton Oilers as a video analyst during the 1984 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which led to the Oilers' first Stanley Cup championship, and Chicago Blackhawks as an assistant coach under Bob Pulford from 1984 to 1987. From 1995 to 1997 he was an assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues.

During the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons, Neilson did not coach but worked as a television color commentator for hockey coverage on TSN alongside Jim Hughson and Gary Green.

Retirement from hockey[]

Neilson had gone on medical leave from the Flyers just before the 2000 playoffs for cancer treatment but was later informed that he had been permanently replaced by Craig Ramsay. Neilson's unceremonious dismissal by Flyers General Manager Bobby Clarke was widely lamented by fans and media as lacking class and respect. Neilson's doctors advised the Flyers that he lacked the strength to perform his duties as head coach. Neilson insisted on trying to return at the end of the first round of the playoffs. At the end of the season, Neilson was dismissed as head coach. He later conceded Clarke did the right thing and he never served as a head coach again.

Neilson was then hired as an assistant coach of the Senators. For the last two games of the 2001–02 season, which were inconsequential to the standings, Head Coach Jacques Martin stepped away from the bench, allowing Neilson to take the reins and become the ninth man to coach 1000 games. The following season, the Senators won the Presidents' Trophy as the first place team in the league, and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. As it was well known that Neilson's cancer was terminal when the Senators were eliminated in a tough seven game series, several players expressed their sadness at not being able to win the Stanley Cup for Neilson before he died.

Neilson's overall regular season record was 460 wins, 378 losses, and 159 ties.

Coaching legacy[]

Neilson dedicated his entire life to coaching and to hockey and affected the careers of thousands. He had no family and would stay up late into the night watching video and analysing games.

Among his most well-known innovations was the use of videotape to analyze other teams, leading to the nickname "Captain Video". He was also the first to use microphone headsets to communicate with his assistant coaches.

In situations where the face off was in the opposition's end and there were perhaps 3 or less seconds to go in the 1st and/or 2nd period, Neilson would pull his goalie for an extra attacker for a potential shot on net off the ensuing face-off. His reasoning was that if the other team gained possession of the puck, it would be virtually impossible for the opposition to score from their end in the mere seconds that were left. No other coach would consider this radical move and was indicative of his innovative thinking.

Neilson was well known for closely reading the rule book looking to exploit loopholes. During one particular game in his first season coaching the Petes, he was down two men in a five on three situation for the last minute of the game. Realizing that more penalties could not be served under the existing rules, Neilson put too many men on the ice every ten seconds. The referees stopped the play and a faceoff was held relieving pressure on the defence. In addition, Neilson also took advantage of fans throwing objects onto the ice to deliberately cause stoppages of play late in a game. After these displays, the rules were changed so that a call for too many men on the ice in a 5-on-3 situation, or a delay-of-game penalty in a 5-on-3 situation, or any deliberate act to stop play (i.e., objects thrown on the ice, or the net being intentionally dislodged), in the last two minutes of regulation or in overtime now results in a penalty shot.

Neilson also discovered that if he put a defenceman in net instead of a goalie during a penalty shot, the defenceman could rush the attacker and cut down the latter's angle of shot, greatly reducing the chances of a goal. In 1968, he used this information in an OHL game between Neilson's Peterborough Petes and the opposing Toronto Marlboros. Neilson replaced Petes goaltender Pete Kostek with defenseman Ron Stackhouse. Stackhouse successfully blocked Frank Hamill's penalty shot attempt by charging out as soon as Hamill crossed the blue line.[1][2] Today the rules states that a team must use a goalie in net for a penalty shot and that the goalie cannot leave the crease until the skater has touched the puck.

One game during a time-out, Neilson told his goaltender, “...when we pull you, just leave your goal stick lying in the crease.” When the other team gained possession, they sent the puck the length of the ice toward the open net, only to deflect wide when it hit the goal stick lying in the crease. The rule was changed the next season so that a goal would be awarded in such a situation.

Neilson also broke the rules, in a sense, when he didn't like what was happening on the ice. As the Canucks coach during a 1982 playoff game against the Chicago Blackhawks, he felt his team was unfairly penalized on several occasions during the third period. He took a trainer's white towel and held it on a hockey stick, as if to wave a white flag. Three other Canucks players did the same thing, and all were ejected from the game. By doing this, Neilson inadvertently started an NHL tradition. Canucks fans waved white towels by the thousands at the next game, a playoff tradition that continues to this day and that is widely copied by other hockey teams.

Life after hockey[]

He was awarded a Doctor of Laws by McMaster University in 2001 (see below). He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in November 2002. He was also appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada {CM} in 2002. The City of Peterborough renamed George Street South Roger Neilson Way opposite the Memorial Centre Arena in 2003; the address of the Arena was supposed to be changed to 1 Roger Neilson Way. The Ottawa Senators have named their coaches office at Scotiabank Place The Roger Neilson Room. The City of Ottawa renamed their Minor Peewee AAA Hockey Division after Neilson in 2005. Also in 2005, the Ontario Hockey League created an award for the top academic player attending college or university and named it the Roger Neilson Memorial Award.

In 1999, Neilson was diagnosed with bone cancer, which spread to become skin cancer in 2001. He died on June 21, 2003, only five days after his 69th birthday, and the funeral was held in Northview Pentecostal Church in Peterborough.

Shortly after his death, the Ottawa Senators Foundation announced plans to build "Roger's House" (french: "La maison de Roger"), later renamed Roger Neilson House, a pediatric palliative care facility built in his memory on the grounds of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. The building was opened on April 21, 2006, by the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty.

In September 2004, Roger Neilson Public School, a new elementary school in Peterborough, opened. The name was chosen because of Neilson's commitment to teaching, which exemplified the qualities of the Character Education program of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.

Statue of Roger Neilson holding up a towel outside of Rogers Arena

On April 7, 2011, Rogers Arena in Vancouver commemorated Roger Neilson's contribution to the NHL and Vancouver Canucks, in particular to the tradition he created during the 1982 playoff series with the Chicago Blackhawks, later named "Towel Power", by erecting a large statue of him in the courtyard of Rogers Arena.

Coaching record[edit][]

Team Year Regular Season Post Season
G W L T OTL Pts Finish Result
TOR 1977–78 80 41 29 10 - 92 3rd in Adams Lost in Third round
TOR 1978–79 80 34 33 13 - 81 3rd in Adams Lost in Second round
BUF 1980–81 80 39 20 21 - 99 1st in Adams Lost in Second round
VAN 1981–82 5 4 0 1 - (77) 2nd in Smythe Lost in Stanley Cup Finals
VAN 1982–83 80 30 35 15 - 75 3rd in Smythe Lost in First round
VAN 1983–84 48 17 26 5 - (73) 3rd in Smythe (fired)
LA 1983–84 28 8 17 3 - (59) 5th in Smythe Did Not Qualify
NYR 1989–90 80 36 31 13 - 85 1st in Patrick Lost in Second round
NYR 1990–91 80 36 31 13 - 85 2nd in Patrick Lost in First round
NYR 1991–92 80 50 25 5 - 105 1st in Patrick Lost in Second round
NYR 1992–93 40 19 17 4 - (79) 6th in Patrick (fired)
FLA 1993–94 84 33 34 17 - 83 5th in Atlantic Did Not Qualify
FLA 1994–95 48 20 22 6 - 46 5th in Atlantic Did Not Qualify
PHI 1997–98 21 10 9 2 - (95) 2nd in Atlantic Lost in First round
PHI 1998–99 82 37 26 19 - 93 2nd in Atlantic Lost in First round
PHI 1999–2000 82 45 22 12 3 105 1st in Atlantic Lost in Third round
OTT 2001–02 2 1 1 0 0 (94) 3rd in Northeast Interim Head Coach
Total 1000 460 378 159 3