Tales From Behind The Bench: The Bizarre Genius of Roger Neilson

Josh LewisSenior Analyst IMay 28, 2008

What would you say about a man who dumped hundreds of golf balls into a washing machine, allowed his dog to roam the streets of Chicago without a leash, and tried to change the TV channel with a calculator?

What would you say about a man who never met a parking lot he couldn't get lost in?

Roger Neilson was a different kind of duck, to be sure.

But Neilson's story is about more than quirks and unusual habits. We're talking about one of the most revered coaches in NHL history, a man who improved nearly every single team he coached, and yet was never allowed to stick around to reap the benefits.

We're talking about one of the all-time good guys in sport, a man who cared deeply for his players and wasn't afraid to sacrifice his own job security in doing the right thing.

Not only that, Neilson was a pioneer in the use of video to prepare for opponents, earning him the moniker "Captain Video." And his name can be found in the builders category of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Yet, for all his endearing qualities, it's hard to find another coach in the long history of the league who was so consistently screwed.

After a lengthy tour of duty behind the bench of the Peterborough Petes, Neilson's NHL coaching career began with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1977. The Leafs had finished one game above .500 the previous year. In Neilson's first season, they made the conference final with a record of 41-29-10.

The next year saw the infamous "paper bag" incident. During a bad slump, Leafs owner/despot Harold Ballard fired Neilson, but then couldn't find a replacement. With a game that Saturday, Ballard was forced to re-hire his colourful coach, who invented bench protests like waving the white flag and throwing all the team's sticks on the ice.

(For more colourful Roger stories, check out Wayne Scanlan's "Roger's World: The Life and Unusual Times of Roger Neilson." It's a terrific read.)

Relishing the publicity generated by the mishap, Ballard tried to get Neilson to walk behind the bench wearing a paper bag over his head, but Neilson refused.

He did return to the bench, but didn't last the season, no thanks to Ballard's dismantling of a promising young Leafs club.

Two years later, Neilson led the Buffalo Sabres to a 99-point season and the division finals, but a clash with GM Scotty Bowman led to another quick exit.

The next season, 1981-82, saw Roger Neilson's first shot at the Stanley Cup. Having spent the season as an associate coach with the Vancouver Canucks, he was forced to take over with five games remaining when head coach Harry Neale was suspended.

The Canucks caught fire immediately and when Neale's suspension ended, he decided to leave Neilson alone because the team was doing so well. Vancouver made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup final, where they ran smack into a dynasty. The New York Islanders swept the series.

Two years later, with the overachieving Canucks having dipped, Neilson was fired. He then had a short stay with the Los Angeles Kings and spent three years on the coaching staff of the Chicago Blackhawks.

In 1989, Captain Video took over the New York Rangers, who hadn't won a Cup in 49 years. The first two years saw modest progress. Then, in 1991-92, the Rangers won 50 games before losing to the eventual Cup-winner, Pittsburgh, in the Patrick Division final.

The next year, Mark Messier had his way and essentially got Neilson fired midway through the season, going over the coach's head directly to Rangers ownership.

True to his nature, Neilson never made a fuss, although he certainly had grounds to—especially since New York lifted the Cup the very next season.

The next stop for the hockey nomad was the expansion Florida Panthers in 1993-94. The Cats had remarkable success for a new team, missing the playoffs by a single point in their first two years.

This was, and still is, unheard of for an expansion squad. Which makes it simply unbelievable that Roger Neilson was fired after the second season.

It did pay off for the Panthers when Doug MacLean took them to the Stanley Cup final the next season, but nine times out of 10, such a move would blow up in their face.

It would be three years before Captain Video got another head coaching job—this time with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1998. And his experience in New York was like a ride on the Ferris wheel compared with what happened in Philadelphia.

During Neilson's third season with the Flyers, with the team doing very well, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer similar to leukemia. Craig Ramsay was named interim coach on Feb. 20, 2000.

Neilson was cleared to return to the bench after the first round of the playoffs, but general manager Bobby Clarke refused to let him return, even as an assistant.

The team made it to the conference final and Ramsay was named permanent coach that summer.

Then Clarke opened his mouth—not a rare occurrence by any stretch—and dared to blame the turn of events on Neilson:

"Roger got cancer - that wasn't our fault. We didn't tell him to go get cancer. It's too bad that he did. We feel sorry for him, but then he went goofy on us."

Of all the slights Roger Neilson put up with throughout his lengthy coaching career, this was the most despicable.

It is the best example of Bob Clarke's propensity to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Foreshadowed by his slash on Valery Kharlamov in 1972, Clarke's management career has been marked by a lack of character, and his handling of the Neilson situation was the pinnacle of poor judgement.

But back to Roger.

In 2001, with his health beginning to deteriorate, he was hired as an assistant coach by the Ottawa Senators. At the end of that season, with Neilson just two games shy of 1,000 coached, the Sens allowed him to take the head coaching reins so he could reach the milestone.

It was a classy move and represented the polar opposite of Clarke and the Flyers.

After the following season, Neilson's health had declined to the point that he was forced to leave the Senators' coaching staff.

Roger Neilson died on June 21, 2003, on NHL draft day.

As the game welcomed one of the deepest classes of young stars in its history, it waved a sad farewell to a legend who never won a Stanley Cup, but touched the lives of more people, in and out of the game, than anyone could count.