Legendary Bench Boss Roger Neilson Remembered
No one knew what to make of the curly-topped coach when he first walked into Maple Leaf Gardens, carting his workbooks, scads of paper stats and rudimentary electronics.
Forty years on, coaches around the world wonder what they’d have done without Roger Neilson. He brought the classroom to the dressing room — math, science and phys ed — yet is most revered today for cross-wiring offence, defence and forechecking to record, pause and rewind.
Neilson is gone, but Captain Video lives on, every time someone picks up a remote in a special teams meeting. The old black attache case that once held his tapes, marked with a giant Leaf logo, is now in the Canadian Museum of History’s hockey display.
In 2017, almost every pro team employs a video coach and state-of-the-art tech. Coaches have tablets right on the bench to give immediate feedback on a play or to challenge a call. Analytics nerds also owe Neilson their gratitude.
“All that had to start somewhere,” said Darryl Sittler, who was Leaf captain for Neilson’s first training camp in September of 1977. “We were all packed in a little room under the stands at the Gardens when he showed us those first videos, on a basic TV, going over power play and penalty killing.
“It was new, but refreshing and I was all for it. Roger also introduced us to proper off ice conditioning, got us working on face-off plays and he probably came up with the first (defined chart) of scoring chances. Mostly, he made you accountable, to be prepared for every night like it was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.”
“Roger’s homework is why we beat the Islanders in the ‘78 playoffs (a post-Cup high-water mark for Leaf teams until the Pat Burns era),” Sittler said.
That the cerebral Neilson would get his big-league break with lunkhead owner Harold Ballard was surprising. But almost a decade into his reign as King of Carlton, success-starved Ballard was willing to take general manager Jim Gregory’s counsel and hire the coach who’d excelled in the OHA with Peterborough. Gregory barely beat out Buffalo’s Punch Imlach to hire Neilson.
Gregory’s only request of Neilson was to let Ballard make the big announcement himself during Neilson’s month-long summer holiday trek through Europe and North Africa. Stopping in Vienna weeks later to catch up with Canadian newspapers, Neilson was shocked to read that Ballard, whom he’d yet to meet, claimed Neilson called him from South Africa early one morning to accept the Leaf job. One Toronto daily was ready to fly a reporter over there, hoping to find Neilson on some jungle safari. It was the start of an often strained relationship with the polar opposites that included the infamous paper bag caper.
But Neilson gained instant respect in the Leaf room, helped immensely when Sittler, Tiger Williams and Lanny McDonald became early converts to his methods.
“I was always impressed by how prepared his teams in Peterborough were when I played in London,” Sittler said. “You saw all the good players who came through there, such as Bob Gainey and Doug Jarvis.”
Neilson’s oft-repeated blueprint was to take a team with limited offensive capability, infuse it with defensive principles through every means possible and then beat down better skilled teams in a contact chess match. That’s where video often came in.
NHL teams had filmed practices with movie cameras going back to the 1950s and Howie Meeker had just begun chirping Hockey Night In Canada audiences about player mistakes via the Telestrator. Teams could also break down TV highlights.
But utilizing nascent VCR technology to target specific problem areas and use it as a scouting tool dawned on Neilson years earlier, teaching high school in Peterborough, his day job while coaching the Petes. Students loved audio-visuals as a break from boring lectures and Neilson was soon recruiting kids to sneak the equipment out at night for Petes’ games and practices.