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Neilson, hockey's well-traveled coach, dies

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Roger Neilson, a Hall of Famer who was the head coach of eight NHL teams and established one of the longest resumes in league history, died Saturday. He was 69.

He had been battling skin and bone cancer. He died at his home in Peterborough, Ontario, the Ottawa Senators said.

Neilson's death was announced by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman 90 minutes into the NHL draft.

''We'll miss you, Roger,'' Bettman told the crowd, which stood for a moment of silence.

Neilson was an NHL coach or scout each of the last 25 seasons but never won a Stanley Cup. This year, he completed his third season as an assistant with the Senators.

He reached the Stanley Cup playoffs 11 times in his 15 seasons as a head coach.

''There is no way to measure accurately the number of lives Roger Neilson touched, inside and outside the hockey world, during his lifetime of devotion to our game,'' Bettman said in a statement.

Ottawa was Neilson's 10th NHL team, and the Senators' inability to win the Cup this season was a source of considerable dismay for the players. Ottawa lost in the Eastern Conference finals to New Jersey in seven games. His illness forced him to miss some games during the deepest playoff run in Senators' history.

This season, as he became stooped and gaunt and wore a baseball cap to cover his bare head, Neilson was a motivational force. He spoke to the Senators before their Game 5 victory over the Devils. Defenseman Chris Phillips, in tears after the Senators were eventually eliminated, recalled what Neilson meant.

''It wasn't something we talked about every day,'' Phillips said. ''But every guy in this room knew it. I feel terrible. This was the team that was going to be able to do that, win one for Rog, and we let him down.''

Senators president and chief executive Roy Mlakar called Neilson a ''great friend and a man who's touched many with his spirit across the world.''

Neilson was elected last year to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders' category.

''It was so unexpected,'' he said at the time. ''You just wonder why you were picked when there are so many others that may seem to have done more.''

Scotty Bowman, with the most wins of any NHL coach, said Neilson never got the credit he deserved as a tactician and coach, in part, because he worked for so many teams.

Bowman said Neilson had been receiving 24-hour care the past few weeks but still sent a 20-second video for a coaching clinic.

''Hockey life and Roger were intertwined, and that's probably what kept him going so long,'' Bowman said.

Few did more in as many places as Neilson.

After coaching Toronto from 1977-79, it was off to Buffalo for one season. From 1981-84, Neilson coached Vancouver, which reached the finals in 1982. He finished 1984 with Los Angeles, but only for 28 games.

Neilson led the New York Rangers from 1989-93, Florida from 1993-95 and Philadelphia from 1997-00. His head coaching record was 460-381-159 in 1,000 games. He also was an assistant coach in Buffalo, Chicago and St. Louis.

Neilson briefly filled in for Jacques Martin as Ottawa's head coach to reach No. 1,000. Only nine coaches have hit that plateau.

''I've been really lucky to be able to be in hockey all my life doing the thing I love,'' he said.

Neilson was labeled ''Captain Video'' for introducing videotape as a teaching tool. He was regarded as a player's coach, and his loud ties behind the bench became a fashion fixture. He often lived close to his team's practice site so he could bicycle to work.

The NHL ''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,'' Bettman said.

Neilson was once asked which team he would select for his Hall of Fame plaque if there were such a requirement for members.

''I didn't stay anywhere long enough,'' he said.



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