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Neilson's Hockey Camp a Hit in Israel

Newest Hall of Fame inductee returns to coaching after fighting off cancer twice.

November 03, 2002|Hal Bock | Associated Press

When they induct Roger Neilson into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, it will be a celebration of 25 years in the NHL, a tribute to a man who has twice fought off cancer and coached eight teams for 1,000 games.

And that doesn't count the kids he worked with in Israel.

Neilson is an eclectic character, always seeking new challenges, new adventures. Teaching poke checks and slap shots 200 yards from the Israeli-Lebanese border certainly qualified.

"I enjoy anything like that," Neilson said. "I had been there two or three times as a tourist. It has the most exciting history you could imagine over 50 years, getting a country organized, constantly having to defend it."

That appealed to Neilson's free spirit. So when he was asked if he'd be interested in setting up one of his summer hockey camps there, he accepted immediately.

Israel has one top-flight rink in Metulla, a tiny northern town that sits in a precarious spot, with Syria on one side and Lebanon on the other. Canada Centre is an Olympic-sized facility with all the amenities. The climate is good. The ice is better. A perfect place, Neilson thought.

"If you look at a map, it's a sliver of land that goes straight up into Lebanon," he said. "They've got a 12-foot fence around the town."

Unconcerned by the geography, Neilson put together a staff of coaches and traveled there for the first time in 1997. It was a daunting experience.

"We went to a bomb shelter that first year," he said. "There were planes roaring overhead. It was a little scary. But the Israeli kids didn't mind at all."

The locals were used to the sights and sounds of war, and shrugged them off. Neilson's group of Canadians were a bit more taken aback. Slowly, though, the visitors became accustomed to the interruptions.

The kids were eager to learn and Neilson loved the teaching, something he has done all his life. Occasionally, his students would have other matters on their plate in that troubled land. "One guy is a fighter pilot now, in for three years," he said.

Neilson understands when some people look askance at the idea of taking hockey to a troubled region such as the Middle East, where anything might happen at anytime. The rink in Haifa was destroyed by a missile during the Persian Gulf War. He also understood when one tough guy NHL player, whom he won't name, got a look at one bad bombing on TV and backed out of the trip at the last minute.

"That's up to them," he said. "They miss out. The rest of us went. We've been to the Sea of Galilee. We've been to bunkers in the Golan Heights. One of the officers, a Gen. Patton type, spoke to our kids and educated them about the problems."

NHL players Bill Lindsay, Dainius Zubrus and Steve Dubinsky made the trip following Neilson, who has coached just about everywhere and now works as an assistant with the Ottawa Senators.

There have been head coaching stints with Philadelphia, Florida, the New York Rangers, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Buffalo, Toronto and, for the final two games last season, Ottawa. That was a gesture by the team to permit him to reach his 1,000th game as a head coach, a plateau only eight others have achieved. In 15 seasons as a head coach, Neilson has taken teams to the playoffs 11 times.

And then there is the cancer.

Neilson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer, in December 1999. He underwent successful stem cell transplant in 2000. In January 2001, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, skin cancer.

He shrugs off questions about his health, saying only, "Everything is going well."

It will certainly not prevent him from joining Monday's Hall of Fame celebration with the other inductees -- ex-players Bernie Federko, Clark Gillies and Rod Langway.

Rising tensions in Israel caused postponements of Neilson's journeys the last two years, but he promises to return.

Last April, he received a letter from Judith Javor, secretary of the Israel Ice Skating Federation.

"She said, 'Get over here. All that stuff on CNN is baloney,' " Neilson said. "We'll be back."

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