Canucks Hockey: Roger Neilson
Name: Roger Paul Neilson
Born: June 16, 1934
Place Of Birth: Toronto, Ontario
Died: June 21, 2003 (aged 69)
NHL Head coach: Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, Ottawa Senators in 2002.
‘Captain Video’ as he would one day come to be known was born on June 16, 1934 in Toronto, back when it was just another star in the constellations prior to becoming the centre of the universe.
Neilson grew up as a youth with a keen interest in sport, eventually opting to attend McMaster University in Hamilton where he would attain a degree in Physical Education, with special application to hockey and baseball.
Quite distinct from his later contemporaries in coaching, Neilson did not have a particularly distinguished playing background in hockey, competing more as a recreational player.
He did not play at the major junior level, let alone any form of professional hockey.
Neilson started out as a seventeen year old freshman volunteer coach, while attending McMaster, in 1951-52. In just his second year he managed to guide his young charges in the Ideal Welding club to the Bantam ‘B’ crown. In 1953-54 he added the Toronto Hockey league title with Shopsy’s Pee Wees of Toronto, followed by another THL championship in 1955-56 with Westlake Motors Juveniles.
A slew of other youth victories followed.
As he worked his way up the minor leagues, Neilson would go on to clinch 9 Metro Toronto titles. He finally got a crack at the big time in 1966 when he was offered the head job with the major junior Peterborough Petes. His cerebral style was well tailored for the more sophisticated coaching systems required at this level.
His first major innovations, including those he would bring with him to the NHL, are associated with his tenure in Peterborough.
He became interested in video analysis here, utilized headsets in order to communicate with his assistant coaches and paid particular attention to thoroughly reading the rulebooks in order to exploit loopholes.
For example, because it was not explicitly disallowed in the rules, Neilson would have his goalies leave their stick in the crease when they were pulled for the extra man, so as to disrupt any shots on the open net.
When he reached the NHL, Neilson embarked on a 16 year career as a head coach. He was not as successful at that level as in his junior years but he managed four first place finishes in the division (with Buffalo, the Rangers and Philly).
He also earned the president’s Trophy with the Rangers, and of course made it to the Stanley Cup Finals on that miracle run with the Canucks in 1982, after replacing Harry Neale.
He coached an even 1000 games in the NHL, and his overall record was 460 wins, 378 regular losses, 159 ties and 3 OT losses.
Neilson’s ingenuity and creativity highlight him as a builder of the league, and his place in the Hall of Fame recognizes that achievement. He helped clarify the current rules, through his mischievous actions, and his thoughtful analysis foreshadowed the player development that typifies the modern coaching methods.
The lasting image of Neilson, iconic in its appearance, is the white towel he attached to the end of a hockey stick and waved from the Vancouver bench in protest of several calls he felt went against his team in that magical ’82 run. Towel Power was born, becoming a lasting Canucks tradition.
Roger Neilson was an innovator and rebel from the beginning right to the end, when he passed away from cancer on June 21, 2003 at the age of 69.