Roger Neilson would have been proud, and not just because Ottawa hockey fans waved the white rally towels he invented nearly 30 years ago.
Roger would have beamed with pride to know that on a game day morning, eight-and-a-half years after the Hall of Fame coach died of cancer, a few veteran Senators players were discussing the nuances of the shootout rules, and Roger’s name had come up.
What would Roger do?
“We were talking about him this morning,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson, “and why nobody takes as long as 40 seconds or more to take a penalty shot in the shootout, because there’s no rule about time.”
The idea would be to mess with the goaltender’s head, in the way that football coaches call timeouts to make a kicker stress about a field goal attempt.
“Roger always did those things to bend the rule book,” Alfredsson says, smiling at the memory of the man.
As a coach, particularly in his junior years, Neilson didn’t manipulate rules as much as bring them to their knees. Only Roger would think to send a defenceman, rather than a goalie, to defend a penalty shot, attacking the bewildered shooter at the blueline and sweeping the puck off his stick. When he pulled his goalie for an extra attacker late in a game, Roger would instruct him to leave the goal stick stretched across the crease as he departed– just in case it might stop a puck from crossing the line.
By the time hockey’s rule makers closed one loophole, Roger would find another.
“He was a character,” says Senators defenceman Chris Phillips. “He had a line for everything . . . and sometimes it was something out in left field.”
Paul MacLean, the Senators new bench boss, says there isn’t a coach in the game that hasn’t been touched by Roger in some way, either through his annual coaching clinics, his systems play (about that, Roger . . . ), statistics he created or video analysis he brought to the game.
It’s scary to realize Neilson has been gone so long, and that only four Senators remain from Roger’s final hockey season, 2002-03, when he worked as a special assistant to Ottawa head coach Jacques Martin. The four: Alfredsson, Phillips, Chris Neil (honorary chairman of the Roger’s House palliative care centre in Neilson’s name) and Jason Spezza.
As part of the ongoing Senators 20th anniversary celebrations, Roger Neilson was the theme of Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, with 19,000 Roger towels distributed to fans. Appropriate timing because Roger coached the Canucks to the Cup final of 1982, famously waving a white flag of surrender toward game officials during a semifinal game in Chicago.
In support, thousands of Canucks fans waved white towels at the next home playoff game and voila: the towel waving phenomenon at sporting events was born.
In Ottawa, Roger is remembered as a nurturing assistant coach, absent-minded as Mr. Magoo, and yet endlessly regaling players and media with stories of the game, its rules and personalities going back decades.
If Roger’s House is Neilson’s lasting legacy in the community, it was Roger’s final words to the team during the 2003 Eastern Conference Final that resonate with each player and coach in the room that night.
Ravaged by two kinds of cancer, Neilson was close to the end. So were the Senators, in a manner of speaking, down 3-1 in games to the New Jersey Devils. The winner would move on to meet Anaheim in the Cup final.
Players think nothing of bleeding for the cause. Coaches, too, apparently, because those who did the dying man’s laundry say Roger’s clothes were often soaked with blood from his treatment wounds.
Too weak to attend games in person anymore, Roger wanted to help in some small way, and so he decided he would address the team prior to Game 5 in Ottawa. Imploring the players to dig deep, Neilson did, too, summoning the physical strength to walk into that video room and address the troops.
Wearing his familiar, tattered ball cap, the man was anything but familiar in his gaunt condition.
“As soon as he opened his mouth to speak, I’ve never seen a group of guys sit and listen to one person so intently,” Neil said.
He spoke to the players about his career in the game, 26 NHL seasons and just one trip to the finals. This was his last chance, but he wanted them to know they may not get many more either. Enjoy the moment, he said. Seize the moment.
Players were so moved, many in tears, it’s a wonder they could still play.
Play they did, beating the Devils in Game 5, and then on New Jersey ice in Game 6, by virtue of a Phillips overtime goal. Back home for Game 7, the Senators fell on a third period goal by Jeff Friesen, leaving the team doubly dissapointed.
“One of the hardest parts of not winning that series was not doing it for Rog,” Phillips says. “It was very emotional, and it hit hard . . . that would have been pretty special to go and win that for him.”