He brought hi-tech to hockey

In­no­va­tive NHL legend wrote his own rules

Winnipeg Sun - - NEWS - LANCE HORNBY lhornby@post­media.com @sun­hornby

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 — he passed away in 2003 — 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-theart 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 high­wa­ter 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, suc­cessstarved Bal­lard was will­ing to take gen­eral man­ager Jim Gre­gory’s coun­sel and hire the coach who had 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 had 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.

Those in­flu­enced by Neilson or play­ers who went on to coach in­clude Joel Quen­neville, Randy Car­lyle, Marc Craw­ford, Bruce Boudreau, Lindy Ruff, Ron Wil­son and Martin.

Neilson’s hockey schools and coach­ing sym­po­siums were al­ways packed and the Leafs alumni named their an­nual high school schol­ar­ships in his hon­our.

“Roger made you a bet­ter player,” Sit­tler said, “and a bet­ter in­di­vid­ual.”


Leafs coach Roger Neilson stands be­hind the bench in March 1979. Neilson had been fired by owner Harold Bal­lard, but was again be­hind the bench be­cause the buf­foon­ish Leafs owner had ne­glected to find a re­place­ment. Inset: Neilson as an older man.

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