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Tuesday, May 13

Updated: May 13, 2:21 PM ET

Neilson will always have a positive impact

By Adam Proteau
The Hockey News

In every sport, in every postseason, there are people who, for sentimental reasons, you'd like to see succeed. Maybe they've come within a hair of winning a championship before. Maybe they've acknowledged it's their final season, la Raymond Bourque or John Elway. Or maybe they just signed your program after a game.

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Then there are people like Roger Neilson. People for whom the arbitrary boundaries of cheering do not apply.

Neilson was back in the public eye last week when he appeared in Ottawa to accept the Order Of Canada, his country's highest honor for lifetime achievement, for dedication to the game of hockey. The 68-year-old Senators assistant coach looked as you might expect of someone who has battled two forms of cancer -- his hair was gone and his body was weakened by four months of chemotherapy.

But his eyes haven't changed. And that glorious, mischievous smile hasn't gone anywhere. Yes, the cancer has altered his appearance, but the essence of Roger Neilson is still the same; he is still hockey's finest ambassador, still the purest example of doing unto others as you'd have done unto you -- and no matter how ugly and unforgiving the cancer becomes, he will never be any different.

A brief admission: we don't claim to know the man. We've never interviewed him, never spoken over the phone, never shook hands and talked about the game together. But you don't have to have personal contact with Roger Neilson to understand what he means to hockey. All you have to do is listen to someone who has been around him.

"I've known Roger for more than 25 years and I can honestly say I've never heard him say anything negative about anyone or anything. There's nobody else like him," said Devin Smith, program manager for the NHL Players' Association's Goals & Dreams Fund. "And, though the game is his passion and his life, I think the friendships Roger has cultivated are at least as important to him. So many people from all walks of life can say they're friends with Roger and I think that tells you how often he has had a positive impact on people's lives."

He has done it in so many ways: as a young high school gym teacher in Toronto. As a hockey institution, from his quarter-century of clinics for coaches and players to his eight stints an NHL head coach to his innovations with rule-skirting and video analysis. As a religious man, whose devotion to God has undoubtedly guided him through tough times.

Tough times like he had in Toronto, where Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard tried to humiliate him by requesting he wear a paper bag over his head during a game. Tough times like he had in Philadelphia, where GM Bob Clarke stripped him of his coaching duties after he was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the same cancer that claimed his sister four years earlier.

None of the bad days broke him. He had too much to do, too many laughs to enjoy, too many people to meet, too many bad ties to try on.

"When Roger was let go by the Rangers, I was living at his house in Peterborough (Ontario)," Smith said. "When he got back, the first thing he asked me was whether I'd go with him on a trip to Australia. He loves to turn bad situations into good ones."

He is doing the same thing now, working with the Senators through his illness, still doing the video work he pioneered decades ago. When the cancer returned deadlier and more unforgiving in December, the Senators offered to put Neilson up in Florida to allow him the comfort that comes with being free of the spotlight.

He wanted no part of it. For Neilson, comfort was doing what he'd done all along. Teach. Learn. Befriend. He stayed with the team, working as his therapy allowed, and when the Senators travelled to Philadelphia for Game 6 of the Eastern semifinal, Neilson was there to see them advance towards what could be their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. It would also be the first time Neilson's name would be engraved on the silver mug. It is the type of ending we all wish for, the utterly deserved gravy on a plate that has had far too much gristle.

And that's why you can't help but wish Neilson and his employer well; they exhibit everything you look for in people and organizations. After all, one of the franchise's most memorable moments came last season, when Senators coach Jacques Martin stepped away from the bench for two games to allow Neilson to reach the 1,000 games-coached mark. It was, Neilson would assuredly tell you, the kind of small and wonderful sacrifice thousands of people gladly make every day for those who cope with disease.

He would also tell you, in his humble way, that he doesn't deserve the accolades, that simply working in the public domain shouldn't be cause for such attention. Here, he is wrong.

For Roger Neilson is still bringing us together, as he has done for so many years. This time, we cheer him towards championship glory, but more importantly, we cheer him to cherish the ritual of people coming together to play the game of hockey.

He is Canada's answer to U.S. college basketball coaching legend Jim Valvano, achieving more in sickness than many of us do in health. He is the epitome of grace at the worst of times. And, though he was immortalized with his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame last winter, Roger Neilson's legend will continue to grow, long after he leaves us.

E-mail Adam Proteau at

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