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43 Years Ago Roger “Captain Video” Neilson Hired as Maple Leafs Head Coach

How did Roger Neilson change hockey for the better?

On July 25, 1977, 43 years ago today, the Toronto Maple Leafs hired one of the great geniuses in the history of the National Hockey League. His name was Roger Neilson, but perhaps he was better known to fans as “Captain Video.”

During Neilson’s time in the NHL, many people considered him crazy – or, at least, an odd duck. However, in retrospect, he was one of the great innovators of the game.

Neilson’s ideas and genius helped pave the way for how so many things are currently done. It’s obvious that current Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, during this time of COVID-19, spent much time engaged in the activity that Neilson inaugurated so many years previously – analyzing film of both his own team and his opponents.

Harold Ballard Hires Neilson to Coach the Maple Leafs

On July 25, 1977, Neilson was hired by the infamous Harold Ballard to his first head-coaching job after spending more than a decade coaching the very team current Maple Leafs prospect Nick Robertson played for during his juniors – the Peterborough Petes. Neilson replaced the great Red Kelly as coach. During Kelly’s last season in 1978-79, the Maple Leafs finished only one game above .500 with a 34-33-13 record; but, in Neilson’s first season, the team made the Stanley Cup semifinals in 1978 with a record of 41-29-10.

Ballard, as long-time Maple Leafs fans know, was a bit of a character. During Neilson’s second season with the Maple Leafs, his team was in a slump so Ballard fired him. However, because the Maple Leafs owner couldn’t find anyone who would coach his team in time for the next game, Ballard rehired him the next day. Ballard then actually suggested that Neilson wear a paper bag over his head so fans wouldn’t know who the team’s coach was. Neilson didn’t wear the bag, but he did return as coach.

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In total, Neilson coached seven other NHL teams during his career. Although carrying the reputation as a bit of an odd duck, his teams always improved. He coached the Vancouver Canucks to the 1982 Stanley Cup Final and finished his career with a regular-season record of 460-378-159 and a record of 51-58 during the playoffs. He was named to the Hall of Fame in the builders’ category a year before his death in 2002.

Evidence of Neilson’s Genius

Neilson never played professional hockey, and never made it past the Junior B level where he grew up in Ontario. However, he was one of the geniuses of the game and found several ways to improve the game’s quality. Neilson was nicknamed “Captain Video” (a nickname he hated) because he was one of the first coaches to use video footage to analyze opponents’ tendencies.

[By the way, if you have time, I encourage fans to watch the YouTube video here. It’s a wonderful tribute to Neilson’s life.]

He also used headsets to communicate with his assistants. He was the first to hire full-time assistant coaches. It was also his idea that a referee should signal the end to line changes when play stopped so that those changes would be fair for both teams.

Neilson knew the rulebook inside and out. Once, when his junior team was trailing during the final minutes of a game and he had two men in the penalty box, he kept sending extra players over the boards and onto the ice. He didn’t always get away with it; but, even if he didn’t, with two players in the penalty box at one time he knew his latest “rule breakers” wouldn’t ever serve penalty time. After that incident, the rule book was changed so the violation would result in a penalty shot.

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In 2000, The Sporting News included an article titled “The Man Who Changed the Game.” That article told a story about how Neilson used his dog to help teach his Peterborough junior team how to forecheck. The story was that the dog stood in front of the net, and the player stood with the puck behind the net. When the player tried to come out, the dog cut off the angle and rushed the puck carrier. As the story quipped, it was “an old dog teaching new tricks.” (from “Roger Neilson, Innovator In Hockey As Coach, 69,” Frank Litsky, The New York Times, 23/06/03).

Roger Neilson’s Continuing Legacy for Both Sports and Life

Neilson spent the last three years of his life as an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators. In April 2002, after he had been diagnosed as having incurable cancer, in a wonderful gesture Ottawa made him the head coach for the last two games of the season so he could become the ninth man in NHL history to coach 1,000 games.

Not only was Neilson a genius, but he was also one of hockey’s true good guys. His reputation was that he cared deeply for his players and was willing to sacrifice his own job security to do the right thing to support them. Although he never married, his lakeside home in Lakefield, Ontario, was often filled with the children and grandchildren of his former players. In The New York Times in 1999 named him “the NHL’s favorite bachelor uncle.”

In 2003, Roger Neilson died – way too early – from cancer. Almost fittingly, Neilson’s passing was right at the start of the NHL Entry Draft on June 21, 2003. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stopped the draft to make the announcement of Neilson’s death saying, “We’ll miss you Roger.”

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Appropriately, given Neilson’s propensity for engaging science in hockey and his love for children, a school is named after him in Peterborough, Ontario. And, in June 2018, the Roger Neilson Public School became Canada’s first public elementary research school. 

I have to think Neilson would have liked that. After all, he was one of the NHL’s early researchers.

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