Roger Neilson

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Roger Neilson
Hockey Hall of Fame, 2002 (Builder)
A statue of Neilson waving a towel on the end of a stick outside a sports stadium
Statue of Roger Neilson at Rogers Arena
Born (1934-06-16)June 16, 1934
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died June 21, 2003(2003-06-21) (aged 69)
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
Coached for Toronto Maple Leafs
Buffalo Sabres
Vancouver Canucks
Los Angeles Kings
New York Rangers
Florida Panthers
Philadelphia Flyers
Ottawa Senators
Coaching career 1966–2003

Roger Paul Neilson, CM (June 16, 1934 – June 21, 2003) was a Canadian professional ice hockey coach, most notably in the NHL, where he served with eight teams. Known as Captain Video because of his technological contributions to the game, he is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category. Alongside his decorated coaching abilities, Neilson is commonly remembered today for his many antics which resulted in the creation of several NHL rules.

Born in Toronto, Neilson attended a public high school, North Toronto Collegiate Institute. Neilson's coaching career began as a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he continued to coach until graduation with a degree in physical education in both hockey and baseball.

Coaching career[edit]

Neilson's coaching career began in 1966 as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes, then the junior farm team of the Montreal Canadiens, and he 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 program, which led to camps from Port Hope, Ontario to Israel.

Neilson moved into professional hockey coaching with the Dallas Black Hawks in the Central Hockey League in 1976–77.

Neilson's entry into the National Hockey League (NHL) came in 1977 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, when he was hired to replace Red Kelly as the head coach of the team. Neilson coached the Toronto Maple Leafs (1977–79), the Buffalo Sabres (1979–81, associate and head coach), Vancouver Canucks (1981–84, assistant and head coach), Los Angeles Kings (1983–84), Chicago Blackhawks (1984–87, assistant), New York Rangers (1989–93), Florida Panthers (1993–95), Philadelphia Flyers (1997–2000), and for two games with the Ottawa Senators in April 2002.

Neilson's tenure with Toronto lasted until 1979, when Neilson was fired as head coach of the Maple Leafs by owner Harold Ballard. There was outrage throughout the players, media, and general public. Ballard then relented, but wanted Neilson to enter the next game with a paper bag over his head as "the mystery coach", but Neilson refused and coached the next game as if nothing had happened.[1]

Neilson was initially an assistant coach with Vancouver, but he took over as head coach after Harry Neale was suspended for taking part in an altercation with fans during a brawl against the Quebec Nordiques. 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 1982 Stanley Cup Finals.[2]

After five seasons with the Rangers and Panthers, Neilson led the Flyers to first place in the Eastern Conference in the 1999–2000 season. With the Flyers leading in the conference standings at the midseason break, Neilson earned the honor to coach the Eastern Conference squad in the All-Star Game. Previously, based on his performance with the Canucks, he had coached the Campbell Conference All-Stars at the 1983 All-Star Game. But a Neilson-coached team fell short of expectations once again, as the Flyers were ousted by the New Jersey Devils in seven games in the Eastern Conference championship round.

Lemieux 'hit' controversy[edit]

The peak and valley of Neilson's stay with the Rangers came in the 1991–92 season, when they captured the Presidents' Trophy with the best record in the league. The Rangers entered the playoffs as prohibitive favorites to win their first Stanley Cup since 1940, only to be eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the Patrick Division finals.

Neilson's reputation as a so-called old school coach was put on a microscope in Game 2 of the series, when Rangers player Adam Graves fractured the left metacarpal bone of Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux with a two-handed baseball swing of his stick. Graves stated that he was swinging on the glove to loosen his grip on the stick to deal with the puck, which reflected Neilson's belief for one to go for the hands.[3][4] Neilson later said he did not see the incident, although it happened in front of his team's benches.[5]

'Yes, no question about it. I kill penalties, too. I hit the gloves, also, once in a while. But to take a swing like he did ... that certainly came from the coach." Lemieux said after the injury. He added, "Certainly a contract was on me that game. I'm not saying Roger Neilson told Graves to go after me, but he told his players to go after me."[6]

Graves was assessed only a two-minute minor penalty on the play.[7] He was allowed play in Game 3, in which he scored the first goal of a 6–5 overtime victory. Two days after the incident, at the league's disciplinary hearing, it decided to suspend Graves four games.[8] The Penguins rallied to win their next seven games, the series, and the Stanley Cup Finals.[9]

Non-coaching career[edit]

Neilson worked for the Edmonton Oilers as a video analyst during the 1984 Stanley Cup Playoffs, culminating in the Oilers' first Stanley Cup championship, and the Chicago Blackhawks as an assistant to head coach 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 served as a color commentator for TSN with Jim Hughson and Gary Green.

Retirement from hockey[edit]

On February 20, 2000, Neilson went on medical leave for cancer treatment, and assistant coach Craig Ramsay took over in his absence.[10][11] On April 10, Neilson told General Manager Bobby Clarke that he was ready to return to the team, but Clarke insisted on additional medical clearance before he returns.[11] In an interview, Neilson said he had been "treated like a king" and referred to Clarke a friend.[12] All the while, Ramsay repeatedly said that he would return to assistant coach as soon as Flyers' management approved Neilson to return as coach.[13][14][15] Neilson was ultimately informed that he had been permanently replaced by Ramsay.[16]

Neilson's dismissal by 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, but Clarke refused. He even tried to defend his decision in the press, stating, "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."[17]

Neilson was then hired as an assistant coach for 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 1,000 games along with the distinction of having served as a head coach for eight different teams.[18] The following season, the Senators won the Presidents' Trophy as the regular season and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. It was public knowledge that Neilson's cancer was terminal when the Senators were ousted in a seven-game series.

Neilson's overall regular-season record was 460 wins, 378 losses, 159 ties, and 3 overtime losses.

Coaching legacy[edit]

Neilson dedicated his entire life to coaching and hockey. He had no family ties and would stay up late into the night watching video and analyzing 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 three or less seconds to go in the first and/or second period, Neilson would pull his goaltender 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 it was indicative of his innovative thinking.

Neilson was well known for closely reading the rule book with the intent of exploiting loopholes. During one particular game in his first season coaching the Petes, he was down two men in a 5-on-3 situation for the last minute of the game. Realizing that more penalties could not be served under the existing rules, Neilson intentionally 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 goaltender 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.[19][20] The rules state that a team must use a goaltender in net for a penalty shot and that the goaltender 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 did not like what was happening on the ice. As the Canucks coach during Game 2 of the 1982 Campbell Conference Final playoff series 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 is widely copied by other hockey teams.[21][22]

Life after hockey[edit]

Neilson 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.[23] 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.[10][24] He died on June 21, 2003, only five days after his 69th birthday, and the funeral was held in Northview Pentecostal Church in Peterborough.[25][26]

Shortly after his death, the Ottawa Senators Foundation[27] announced plans to build "Roger's House" (French: "La maison de Roger"), later renamed Roger Neilson House, a paediatric palliative care facility built in his memory on the grounds of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.[28] 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.[29]

On April 7, 2011, Rogers Arena in Vancouver commemorated 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.[30]

The Florida Panthers dedicated the press box to Neilson, their first coach, in 2013.[31]

Coaching record[edit]

Roger Neilson coaching record
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 Won in preliminary round (2–0 vs. LA)
Won in quarter-finals (4–3 vs. NYI)
Lost in semi-finals (0–4 vs. MTL)
TOR 1978–79 80 34 33 13 81 3rd in Adams Won in preliminary round (2–0 vs. ATL)
Lost in quarter-finals (0–4 vs. MTL)
TOR Total 160 75 62 23 173 8–11 (0.421)
BUF 1980–81 80 39 20 21 99 1st in Adams Won in preliminary round (3–0 vs. VAN)
Lost in quarter-finals (1–4 vs. MIN)
BUF Total 80 39 20 21 99 1 division title 4–4 (0.500)
VAN 1981–82 5 4 0 1 (77) 2nd in Smythe Won in division semi-finals (3–0 vs. CGY)
Won in division finals (4–1 vs. LA)
Won in conference finals (4–1 vs. CHI)
Lost in Stanley Cup finals (0–4 vs. NYI)
VAN 1982–83 80 30 35 15 75 3rd in Smythe Lost in division semi-finals (1–3 vs. CGY)
VAN 1983–84 48 17 26 5 (73) 3rd in Smythe Fired
VAN Total 133 51 61 21 123 12–9 (0.571)
LAK 1983–84 28 8 17 3 (59) 5th in Smythe Did not qualify
LAK Total 28 8 17 3 19 0–0 (0.000)
NYR 1989–90 80 36 31 13 85 1st in Patrick Won in division semi-finals (4–1 vs. NYI)
Lost in division finals (1–4 vs. WSH)
NYR 1990–91 80 36 31 13 85 2nd in Patrick Lost in division semi-finals (2–4 vs. WSH)
NYR 1991–92 80 50 25 5 105 1st in Patrick Won in division semi-finals (4–3 vs. NJ)
Lost in division finals (2–4 vs. PIT)
NYR 1992–93 40 19 17 4 (79) 6th in Patrick Fired
NYR Total 280 141 104 35 317 2 division titles 13–16 (0.448)
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
FLA Total 132 53 56 23 129 0–0 (0.000)
PHI 1997–98 21 10 9 2 (95) 2nd in Atlantic Lost in conference quarter-finals (1–4 vs. BUF)
PHI 1998–99 82 37 26 19 93 2nd in Atlantic Lost in conference quarter-finals (2–4 vs. TOR)
PHI 1999–2000 82 45 22 12 3 105 1st in Atlantic Won in conference quarter-finals (4–1 vs. BUF)
Won in conference semi-finals (4–2 vs. PIT)
Lost in conference finals (3–4 vs. NJ)
PHI Total 185 92 57 33 3 220 14–15 (0.483)
OTT 2001–02 2 1 1 0 0 (94) 3rd in Northeast Interim head coach
OTT Total 2 1 1 0 0 2 0–0 (0.000)
Total 1,000 460 378 159 3 1082 3 division titles 51–55 (0.481)


  1. ^ Hornby, Lance (March 11, 2019). "A look back at the Roger Neilson 'paper bag' game and Pal Hal's theatre of the absurd". Toronto Sun. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  2. ^ Crowe, Jerry (April 5, 1991). "Kings Can Consult History Book, Not Webster : NHL playoffs: Canucks went all the way to Stanley Cup finals without Neale in 1982". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  3. ^ Lapointe, Joe (May 7, 1992). "Hockey; Lemieux is Sidelined Amid Slash Controversy". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Molinari, Dave (May 7, 1992). "Graves digs deep hole for Penguins, Lemieux". The Pittsburgh Press. p. D1.
  5. ^ "N.Y. has tapes, too". The Pittsburgh Press May 7, 1992. p. D1.
  6. ^ "Stanley Cup Finals Notebook". UPI. May 30, 1992.
  7. ^ "Broken Hand Puts Lemieux On Sideline". Associated Press. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. May 7, 1992. p. C1, C7.
  8. ^ "Graves suspended four games for breaking Lemieux's hand". Associated Press. The Vancouver Sun. p. E8.
  9. ^ Cariou, Chris (June 2, 1992). "Pens sweep up Cup". Canadian Press. Toronto National Post. p. 44.
  10. ^ a b Alex, Rachel (February 20, 2000). "Suffering From Cancer, Neilson Leaves Flyers". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  11. ^ a b "One thing after the other". Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  12. ^ Panaccio, Tim. "Neilson 'devastated' over furore after joke". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  13. ^ Kelley, Jim. "Hasek and Zhitnik are the big unknowns in Sabres' equations". Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  14. ^ "Neilson to return to Flyers as assistant - UPI Archives". UPI. Retrieved September 11, 2023.
  15. ^ "Flyers' Neilson is back but as an assistant only". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  16. ^ "Ramsay to coach the Flyers". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  17. ^ Lewis, Josh (May 28, 2008). "Tales From Behind The Bench: The Bizarre Genius of Roger Neilson". Bleacher Report. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  18. ^ " NHL - Neilson to coach Ottawa's final two regular-season games". Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  19. ^ "Penalty shot bid blocked by defenceman". The Montreal Gazette. The Canadian Press. September 27, 1968. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  20. ^ Kay, Jason (January 29, 2015). "NFL has Deflategate, did the NHL have Coffeegate?". The Hockey News. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  21. ^ McIndoe, Sean (November 22, 2013). "NHL Grab Bag: Everyone in Toronto Seems Extremely Chill About Clarkson's First Goal". Grantland. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
  22. ^ Laing, Zach. "NHL History: Roger Neilson waves the white towel". CanucksArmy. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  23. ^ "Neilson elected to Hockey Hall of Fame -". UPI. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  24. ^ "Neilson now must battle serious skin cancer, too". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  25. ^ "Roger Neilson Obituary". Ottawa Citizen.
  26. ^ Litsky, Frank (June 23, 2003). "Roger Neilson, Innovator In Hockey As Coach, 69". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 10, 2023.
  27. ^ "Roger Neilson House". Ottawa Senators Foundation. Retrieved October 22, 2016.
  28. ^ "Memory of former Sens coach lives on at newly renamed Roger Neilson House". Ottawa South News. June 17, 2016. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
  29. ^ Kim, Clark (November 4, 2004). "Roger Neilson Public School officially opens". Kawartha Lakes This Week. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  30. ^ "Roger Neilson statue unveiled in pre-game ceremony". April 7, 2011. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  31. ^ "Panthers to dedicate press box to Roger Neilson".

External links[edit]

Preceded by Head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Succeeded by
Preceded by Head coach of the Buffalo Sabres
Succeeded by
Preceded by Head coach of the Vancouver Canucks
Succeeded by
Harry Neale
Preceded by Head coach of the Los Angeles Kings
Succeeded by
Preceded by Head coach of the New York Rangers
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Position created
Head coach of the Florida Panthers
Succeeded by
Preceded by Head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers
Succeeded by
Preceded by Head coach of the Ottawa Senators
April 2002
(2 games)
Succeeded by