A Christmas Story: Leafs coach Roger Neilson

Few people in hockey epitomized the holiday spirit quite like former Leafs and Rangers head coach Roger Neilson. (Al Bello/Getty)

It’s interesting the people and memories that we reflect on every time the Christmas season rolls around. For me, I always end up remembering a great friend and hockey person who has been gone for more than a decade.

I am fortunate to have worked with Roger Neilson on two occasions: during his two years as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and with the New York Rangers in August of 1989. When he assumed the Leafs coaching job in 1977, Neilson was considered a bit of a coaching revolutionary. Nicknamed “Captain Video,” he implemented modern technology at a franchise that was as old school as they came in the NHL. Leafs owner Harold Ballard never embraced Neilson’s methods or style, but that didn’t dissuade Roger from doing things his way. Working with him at the Leafs taught me to be true to what you believe in.

Neilson left the Leafs in 1979, and the next year I was pleasantly surprised to receive my first Roger Neilson Christmas card—a Buffalo Sabres team card, reflecting his new employer. From then on, I was one of thousands who received his annual Christmas wishes. As Neilson changed jobs—his coaching career ranged across a variety of NHL teams—his cards reflected that. He always included a handwritten note. When I worked with him in 1989-90 with the New York Rangers, I witnessed first-hand how in every spare moment in November and early December, Neilson was busy writing personal notes on thousands of Christmas cards. In the mid-1980s, card recipients noticed a change in the tone of his cards as Neilson had embraced Christianity and included a favourite passage from the Bible.

The Rangers experience was short for me professionally as I was fired by Neil Smith after just one year. One of the first calls came from Roger Neilson. His words of support and friendship included his line, “Look, I’ve been fired three times in one year; you’ve got a long way to go to catch up to me.” He had been fired by Vancouver in the early part of the 1983-84 season, then coached the Los Angeles Kings for the rest of the regular season, was fired again, and then played a low-profile role for a number of weeks with the Edmonton Oilers to help provide his video-preparation knowledge for what proved to be the run to their first of five Stanley Cups.

I continued receiving the annual Christmas card every year after being fired from the Rangers. Until one year, a number of years later, I didn’t receive a card. Months later, when I saw Neilson, I kidded him that I must have dropped to his B list or even his C list, since I hadn’t received a card.

That next December, the distinctive handwriting bore another Neilson classic line: “You are definitely and A-list friend,” read his note. Neilson had thousands of A-list friends. He never changed at all as the game evolved to be more corporate and less about people. Like his first year with the Leafs under Harold Ballard, he remained true to what he was and what he believed in.

I miss the Christmas card. I miss him. Hockey will always miss him.

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