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Roger Neilson, 69; Coached 8 Hockey Teams

June 22, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Roger Neilson, whose eccentric manner and spectacularly ugly neckties masked one of the sharpest minds in hockey, died Saturday at his home in the Ontario community of Peterborough, Canada. He had turned 69 on Monday.

Neilson had suffered from multiple myeloma -- cancer of the bone marrow -- and skin cancer. The disease reportedly had spread to his brain.

Although he never advanced beyond junior hockey as a player, Neilson coached eight NHL teams, including the Los Angeles Kings for a 28-game stint in the 1983-84 season. Neilson, who had been a coach, assistant coach, scout or video coordinator for NHL teams every year since 1977, was an assistant with the Ottawa Senators last season.

"I had the good fortune of playing for him for a brief period in L.A., and he was one of the most prepared coaches I've ever seen," Dave Taylor, the Kings' general manager, said Saturday during a break in the NHL's annual entry draft in Nashville. "He was an innovative and dedicated hockey man."

Elected to hockey's hall of fame in the builders' category last year, Neilson was too ill to join the Senators for their last few trips of the playoffs. But he gathered his strength to deliver a motivational speech before the fifth game of Ottawa's Eastern Conference final series against the New Jersey Devils.

"We've seen the battle that he's going through. You see it every day," Senators forward Bryan Smolinski said. "And it makes our battle very minuscule."

The Senators lost to the Devils in seven games, depriving Neilson of a second trip to the Stanley Cup finals. He had coached the Vancouver Canucks to the 1982 finals, where they were swept by the New York Islanders. His coaching record was 460-381-159, a .540 winning percentage.

His death was announced Saturday by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during the entry draft and was followed by a moment of silence.

"Hockey has lost a great mind, a great spirit, a great friend," Bettman said. "The National Hockey League family mourns his loss but celebrates his legacy -- the generations of players he counseled, the coaches he molded, the changes his imagination inspired and the millions of fans he entertained."

Neilson caused a stir in the 1970s when he began using videotapes to scout opponents. He was dubbed "Captain Video," but his methods were universally copied.

Neilson was born in Toronto and graduated from McMaster University with the intention of becoming a teacher. In a sense, he did, developing a reputation as a quick and clever thinker while coaching in the junior ranks and forcing hockey administrators to modify their rule books.

It was Neilson who sent out a defenseman instead of a goaltender to face an opponent's penalty shot, and he ordered the defenseman to rush the shooter and rattle him. That's no longer allowed. On another occasion, when his team was two men short late in a game, he continued to send players onto the ice because he knew his team couldn't play with fewer than three skaters and there wasn't enough time to serve additional penalties. The rules were rewritten to dictate the awarding of a penalty shot in such situations.

In the 1990s, Neilson ran hockey camps in Metulla, Israel, near the border with Lebanon and Syria. He also ran coaching camps in Canada that were well-attended by his peers. He never married and had no living relatives, but he was never alone.

"He had a tremendous amount of friends," said Taylor, who was among a crowd of 1,300 at a tribute to Neilson a year ago in Toronto. "I don't know if you'll ever hear a bad word spoken about him. He treated everybody with respect, and the influence he had throughout hockey was tremendous."

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