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PRINCIPE: Full Nelson

by Gene Principe / Edmonton Oilers
- Photo by Getty Images

I met Todd Nelson every time there was a Penticton Young Stars Tournament. We would see him for a few days, but the focus was always on the players. It was about finding out what he knew about the Oiler prospects. There was very little time to chat about Todd. Then he would come to Edmonton for the start of training camp, but again Nelson was far from the focus of my attention and so many others. Now the big boys were in town for camp and it was about them and everything that revolved around the Oilers. There just didn't seem to be the time or the necessity to really get to know who Todd Nelson was exactly.

That changed abruptly at the beginning of the week when Dallas Eakins was relieved of his duties and Todd Nelson, after years of watching his players get promoted, received the same promotion to the Oilers. It’s a chance to go from being an AHL head coach to an interim head coach in the NHL. It wasn't really surprising, considering all the success he had in the minors. He had earned an opportunity.

It wasn't just his win-loss record, but it also had to do with his ability to win under difficult circumstances. Players being taken away, returned, taken again and sometimes sent back. It left him with an ever-changing roster. It never stopped him from winning. It also never stopped him from making players better. It wasn't often, if ever, that a player didn't come back to Edmonton better than when he left the Oilers.

Nelson (right) celebrates a Calder Cup win with the Portland Pirates of the AHL. Photo provided.
It's easy to tell what kind of record he had as a coach. That, you can look up but you can't get to know someone without listening to him, watching him and seeing him do his job before your very eyes.

I heard Todd many times on Oilers Now with Bob Stauffer. I always appreciated his to-the-point responses on players, systems and the game of hockey. He's been no different this past week. Nelson has stepped into a difficult situation, yet the coach has come across as calm and confident. Not pushy, but also not shy to relay his message to a group looking for direction. As he said after game one, it helps to have the experience of Craig MacTavish. But the GM was hoping to be here for a good time and not a long time. MacTavish wants to make this Todd's team.

Over the last few days, I found out that Nelson was born in Prince Albert and played for the Raiders. He was drafted by Pittsburgh and also played for Washington. With the Penguins, he used to 'hang around' a little with Mario Lemieux. I didn't know that former NHLer Jeff Nelson was his brother or that he spent much of his career in the minors and is in the Portland Pirates (Washington's AHL affiliate) Hall of Fame.

When asked about coaching in OKC and some non-NHL challenges like tornadoes, his response was that he had never heard of tornadoes except for the one that occurred in Edmonton July 31,1987.

There was a trip in San Jose to get a haircut and a judge mistakenly took his suit jacket. He got it back the next day.

These are just a few of the anecdotes and stories I've found out in the first few days of being around him. For all that's happened Todd Nelson, he would have been excused for feeling overwhelmed by his first game behind the bench. But instead on Thursday night he said, “the only difference coaching in the NHL is the amount of people in the arena.”

I think Oiler fans (and I) look forward to getting to know him even better through the remainder of this season. Welcome to the NHL, Todd.
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