”A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say we did it ourselves.” Philosopher Lao-tzu.
Roger Neilson wasn’t behind the bench during the Panthers’ incredible journey to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals. He was no longer part of the organization he helped to create.
But as the ’96 Panthers gather this weekend in South Florida for its reunion game Saturday afternoon at the BankAtlantic Center, Neilson will be remembered as not only a major reason the Panthers reached the heights they did, but as a brilliant coach and compassionate man.
“I don’t think we could have done what we did without Roger laying the groundwork,” said Brian Skrudland, the captain of the ’96 Panthers. “Roger made us a team.”
Neilson, who died after a three-year battle with cancer in 2003, offered sweet relief in a world sometimes populated by bloated egos and self-absorbed bores.
Neilson was the oldest living teenager. He rode his bike to work and stopped to eat his lunch some afternoons at a bus stop in Pompano Beach. Although he had no living relatives, his office each Christmas was stuffed floor-to-ceiling with gifts he was sending or had received.
The television in his office was always on MTV, but he couldn’t tell you the name of a single video. Whenever he was asked who was singing, Neilson would reply, “I think it’s Meat Loaf.”
While Neilson could remind you of an absent-minded professor, he was an innovator in coaching. He was the first in professional hockey to use video, earning the nickname ‘Captain Video.’
Neilson was always thinking outside the box. When coaching the Peterborough Petes early in his career, he pulled his goalie for an extra skater but not before telling the goalie to lay his stick across the goal line to prevent a puck from sliding through. And when faced with a penalty shot one evening, Neilson pulled his goalie in favor of skater and told him to rush the shooter.
But Neilson’s legacy in Florida was turning a group of players discarded by other teams into a champion. He didn’t scream instructions or bark demands. He thought the less said the better and always gave his team the credit. He turned 25 individuals into a group the first year by holding a volleyball tournament on the beach and something called the Parking Lot Olympics, complete with the stick-toss competition.
“He brought us together and made us believe in one another,” said forward Tom Fitzgerald.
And the team took on Neilson’s personality. They were loose off the ice but tough on the ice. They liked to have fun but knew the importance of winning. They never took credit individually. They never backed down, always showed up and believed hard work and preparation could carry them further than any expansion team before or after them.
Those who learned from Neilson learned more than just hockey. They learned about class and dignity and treating others with respect. When Panther GM and coach Jacques Martin was coaching in Ottawa and Neilson was his assistant in 2000, Martin stepped aside to allow Neilson to coach the final two games of the season.
Neilson believed in people, especially the core group he came to South Florida to coach in 1993. Even after he was fired before the 1995-96 season, “Roger fought to keep the core group together,” recalled forward Dave Lowry.