Roger Neilson never has cared much for convention. Through coaching stints with eight teams, including a 28-game tenure with the Kings in the 1983-84 season, he rode his bicycle nearly everywhere, wore shorts year-round and rummaged through bargain bins for the $5 ties he reluctantly knotted around his neck on game days.
But his election Wednesday to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the most significant rite for a hockey player or administrator, had a profound effect on hockey's favorite free spirit.
Still fighting multiple myeloma--cancer of the bone marrow--and survivor of two cancer surgeries in the last three years, Neilson said he was humbled to have been elected in the builders' category.
"To all of a sudden get this, it's just kind of an extra thing on top," said Neilson, who turned 68 last weekend. "It seems like it's amazing.
"I don't think I relate it to the off-ice [medical] battles. All I know is I'm really happy and proud about it today."
Elected in the players' category were two-time Norris trophy-winning defenseman Rod Langway, who had a distinguished career in Montreal and Washington; forward Bernie Federko, who scored 1,130 points in 1,000 games, mostly with St. Louis, and left wing Clark Gillies, a member of four Stanley Cup championship teams with the New York Islanders.
Neilson's selection, however, touched the strongest emotional chord.
After coaching 1,000 games--including two this season after the Ottawa Senators briefly promoted him from his assistant coach position--he seems to know everyone in the game. Many of his friends had gathered in Toronto on Wednesday to "roast" him at a dinner whose proceeds are earmarked for two cancer charities. King General Manager Dave Taylor, who played for Neilson in Los Angeles, counted himself among the estimated 1,000 people at the event.
"Roger's very well respected," Taylor said. "He's been on the cutting edge of coaching for a long time. He was one of the first guys to heavily use videotape to analyze games, and he used tape to scout teams too.
"He's also been a mentor for a lot of guys. He's run a coaching clinic in Ontario for 15 years, and he gets established coaches there, not just up-and-coming coaches."
Taylor recalled seeing Neilson ride his bike to the Forum in Inglewood, where Neilson--usually accompanied by his dog--would spend hours reviewing tapes and plotting strategy.
"He was always working tremendously hard at the job," Taylor said. "He would go home after a game and watch the game over twice, and then break things down a third time. That was before the technology we have now."
The four were selected by an 18-member committee of hockey executives, former players, writers and broadcasters. They will be inducted into the Hall, in Toronto, on Nov. 4. Also honored were Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe and Gilles Tremblay of Montreal for contributions to print and broadcast journalism, respectively.