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Friends And Fans Say Goodbye to Roger Neilson

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
(CP) - PETERBOROUGH, Ont. -- Craig Ramsey learned to expect the unexpected whenever he was around Roger Neilson.

"I used to always be fascinated by what he was wearing at any particular time," said Ramsey, an assistant coach with the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. "Everybody knows the ties but there were the cutoff shorts, the ripped-up T-shirts or Roger wearing a Chicago Blackhawks T-shirt while coaching the Philadelphia Flyers.

"There was always something new with Roger and I'll miss seeing that."

Ramsey was among the 1,400 mourners who attended a 90-minute tribute here Saturday for Neilson, the 69-year-old former NHL coach who succumbed to cancer June 21 after a three-year battle.

There was no shortage of big-name hockey officials at the tribute. Among those attending were NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, league vice-president of operations Colin Campbell, Scotty Bowman (league's winningest head coach) and head coaches Marc Crawford (Vancouver Canucks), Joel Quenneville (St. Louis Blues), Pat Quinn (Toronto Maple Leafs), Lindy Ruff (Buffalo Sabres) and Mike Keenan (Florida Panthers), Tampa Bay GM Rick Dudley, New York Ranger Eric Lindros and several Ottawa Senators players and front-office personnel.

Hockey Hero, Roger Neilson
A capacity gathering of 1,100 people jammed into the main sanctuary at Northview Pentecostal Church for the service. Another 300 or so onlookers watched on television from the two spillover areas at the church and another in an outdoor tent.

The attendance was somewhat surprising since there had been talk that upwards of 4,000 people were expected.

The main sanctuary was tastefully decorated with numerous items of Neilson memorabilia. Included were photos of Neilson's trips to Hawaii with friends, shots of him Neilson bungee-jumping in Africa and his former Peterborough Petes teams and baseball squads he coached. There was also a framed document of his investiture in May into the Order of Canada, a plaque Neilson received in Vancouver for his work with the mentally disabled and a cartoon sketch of Petes' coaches who won Memorial Cups that also included Bowman and Keenan.

Also on Saturday, the Kanata Wesleyan Church held a memorial service for people in Ottawa who wished to pay respects to Neilson, whose most recent coaching job was as an assistant with the Ottawa Senators. The service was held simultaneously to the one held here.

The tribute featured numerous funny stories and anecdotes about the quirky and colourful Neilson, the Hall of Fame coach who was famous for his penchant for loud neckties and thrifty spending habits. But Ramsey fondly remembers thinking Neilson was really off the wall as a 16-year-old playing for Neilson with the Petes.

"We had a very poor team at the time and I told Roger I wanted to see him after practice," Ramsey said following the service. "I had made up my mind that I didn't think this (playing in Peterborough) was what I wanted and that I wanted to go home.

"When I got into his office, I sat down, hung my head and told him all this, and when I looked up he was sound asleep, leaning up against the wall out cold.

"Finally, he just kind of fell back off the chair and said, `Maybe we should take a couple of days and let me think this over.' And I said, `Great,' and I ran out the door thinking this guy is a nut but it was the last time I thought about leaving."

Ramsey would later go on to a long, productive NHL career as a player and later served as an assistant coach under Neilson with the Philadelphia Flyers. It was while coaching the Flyers in '99 that Neilson was diagnosed with bone cancer and had to be replaced by Ramsey for the end of the 1999-2000 season.

Neilson hoped to return for the playoffs but was kept out by general manager Bob Clarke, who then let Neilson go after the season, prompting him to say: "I don't think they want a cancer patient who is a friend of Eric Lindros right now."

The participants and program for Saturday's tribute were chosen by Neilson, a deeply religious man, prior to his death and the church honoured his requests accordingly. No NHL officials spoke during the ceremonInstead, long-time friends Don Liesemer and David Fisher delivered tributes to the former NHL coach, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last November. Liesemer, the director of Hockey Ministries International, called Neilson a kind and compassionate man.

"Let us grieve but let us also take the time to celebrate the life of this man," Liesemer said. "This man who is also taking the sweet taste of victory.

"As a result of meeting this man, the whole direction of my life changed. He had a special gift of making all feel important."

Added Fisher, who provides chapel services and Bible studies for the Toronto Blue Jays and Petes: "It's sad but it is a time to celebrate Roger's life. We're going to miss him but it's not sad for him.

"He's in a better place."

Tom Fraser, a senior pastor for First Alliance Church in Toledo, Ohio, gave the benediction. Fraser and Neilson became friends when Neilson attended Fraser's church in White Plains, N.Y., while coaching the New York Rangers.

"I remember the first time I laid eyes on Roger," Fraser said. "It was a Sunday morning ... and when he got to the church, he told his bodyguard, Mike, to wait until the service was over."

"Sure enough, when it was done, there was Mike."

Mike, it turned out, was Neilson's dog.

"That was Roger," said Fraser. "I will deeply miss my friend, your friend, our friend.

"No one will ever replace him and that's the way it should be. God knew there could only be one Roger Neilson."

Neilson was diagnosed in January 2001 with malignant melanoma, the worst form of skin cancer. In December 1999, he had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and had a successful stem cell transplant in March 2000.

Neilson, who coached hockey teams for 50 years, was at one time or another head coach of 10 NHL clubs.

"I think the ceremony was very appropriate for Roger," said Ottawa Senators coach Jacques Martin. "There was a lot of humour and I think people that knew him always appreciated his great sense of humour.

"That's probably one thing a lot of people didn't know he had. The anecdotes were very appropriate and memorable."

Martin chuckled when asked about Neilson's cost-conscious ways.

"I remember I used to work his hockey camps and he used to take me out to dinner -- to Swiss Chalet."

Keenan, however, chose to keep his memories about Neilson to himself.

"I'm going to keep those personal because they're too good," Keenan said. "You people know him in the hockey world but I know him in a different world and someday I'll share them with you.

"Certainly for a lot of us it's a sad day but on the other hand I think the message was delivered well and that was to celebrate his life rather than reflect upon what makes us sad."

Added Crawford: "He had such a tremendous realm of friends and so many people that shared his life with him. It just touches so many areas he knows so many people and if you are a friend of his it opens up your world to a whole vast group of other people. He always found a way to make you feel special."

Walter Gretzky, the father of former NHL superstar Wayne Gretzky, agreed.

"Roger didn't care about just the best players," he said. "He also cared about the little guys who are still learning to skate.

"That's the way Roger was."

Neilson was known for his unconventional strategies against opponents and the pioneer of video as a hockey teaching aid -- earning him the moniker Captain Video.

He organized an annual coaching conference in Windsor, Ont., and operated hockey schools that included 1990s sessions in Israel. He was an avid Middle East history buff and on one of his trips there travelled through Africa, where he bungee-jumped into a river gorge from a bridge.

Neilson made his NHL coaching debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1977. In his first season, he took a team that included Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Tiger Williams and Mike Palmateer through a 41-win season, and a first-round playoff upset of the New York Islanders.

He went on to work as an NHL head coach with Buffalo, Vancouver, Los Angeles, the New York Rangers, Florida, Philadelphia and Ottawa -- the Senators giving him a game April 13, 2002, so he could reach 1,000 for his career.

He also was an assistant coach in Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis and Ottawa, where he was working until the ravages of cancer finally kept him from making it to the Corel Centre.

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