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Honoring Neilson

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

Roger Neilson left quite a legacy during a long and distinguished career as a coach in the National Hockey League.

Among the many achievements that ultimately landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame was guiding the 1993-94 Florida Panthers to the best showing for an expansion team in any of the four major professional sports.

Neilson no longer was the Panthers coach in their third season when they made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals, but there is no question he had built the foundation of that team.

On Monday, the Panthers recognized Neilson’s tremendous contributions to the franchise by dedicating the press box, in conjunction with the Roger Neilson House, in his honor and renaming it the Roger Neilson Memorial Press Box. Those words now appear in big bold white letters on the façade right below the press box and a plaque bearing his name and likeness will hang on the wall.

On hand for the announcement in ClubRED presented by Stoli, which took place after the Panthers’ morning skate, were owner Vinnie Viola, partner Doug Cifu, alternate governor and original team president Bill Torrey, general manager Dale Tallon, assistant general manager Mike Santos, and assistant coach and original captain Brian Skrudland.

“I wanted to be here,” Viola said, “because I wanted to make it very, very clear that the Florida Panthers organization is about taking care of its own and remembering the dedication and sacrifices of everybody who comes into this winning organization.”

It was Torrey and original general manager Bobby Clarke who hired Neilson to become the Panthers’ first head coach in June of 1993, a little more than three months before the start of the inaugural season.

As Torrey and others spoke on Monday about Neilson, who passed away from cancer in 2003, a video montage of the coach was displayed on the scoreboard at the BB&T Center for all attendees to see.

After first joking about Neilson’s many “awful” ties, Torrey spoke about the coach and the man.

“He got us started in a very solid way,” Torrey said. “He brought our team together right from day one. ... I think it’s very fitting that Roger Neilson and what he brought to this franchise from day one is being honored in a very, very lovely way. And I know it’s a way that he would have deeply appreciated.

“I remember when we put him in the Hall of Fame (in 2002), he wrote me a personal letter thanking me. I called him on the phone — he was not in good health at the time. I said, ‘Roger, you gave your life to hockey,’ and what more can you say about someone who truly, every single day of his life, the happiest moments were when he was in the rink, hassling the players or hassling the general manager as only he could do. But I miss him. And this is justly honored.”

Without question, Neilson touched many people during his coaching career, which included 1,000 career games — a milestone he reached in 2001-02 when then-Ottawa head coach Jacques Martin stepped aside for the final two games of the regular season.

There are former disciples of Neilson — coaches and players alike — everywhere around the NHL. Two of them, fittingly, are the two head coaches facing each other Monday night at the BB&T Center: the Panthers’ Peter Horachek and Philadelphia’s Craig Berube.

“Roger signed me,” Horachek said. “When I was in junior (hockey) he came to my house. I had a good relationship with Roger. He was a great man. I looked up to him. He was one of my first coaches. I spent a lot of time going to his coaching clinics up in Windsor (Ontario). He’s obviously an important person in the game and (produced) a lot of firsts. I smile whenever I think about him. It’s nice that he’s being honored and there’s a tribute. A lot of people who crossed his path benefited from him.”

Yet another Neilson disciple is Edmonton Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins, an original Panther who referred to the team’s first head coach as a “second father.”

Asked what coaching lessons he learned from Neilson, Eakins didn’t hesitate.

“Chop wood, carry water,” Eakins said after the Oilers’ morning skate the day of their recent visit to South Florida. “Roger was a tireless worker. Geez, he used to sleep at the rink a lot of times. It would be too late for him to go home, so he would just stay overnight. His passion for the game, the way he communicated with his players and his incredible work ethic were the things that really rubbed off on me. Fond memories of that old bird. He was a great, great man to me.”

The Panthers also have fond memories of their first head coach. And that’s why, as they continue their year-long celebration of their 20 years of NHL existence, they wanted to make sure his legacy would live on in South Florida.

Perhaps Randy Moller, another player on that first Panthers team and now Florida’s vice president for broadcasting & Panthers alumni, put it best in his introductory remarks Monday.

“It only seems fitting to dedicate in his name the Roger Neilson Memorial Press Box here at the BB&T Center knowing that Roger’s spirit will continue to watch over the players, fans and community who enter this great facility from high above the ice surface, which he so dearly loved.”

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