They filled a banquet room Wednesday night at the posh Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata, united by their shared love of a game and a profession.
A perfect stage, one might suggest, to celebrate and honour a mentor who had touched so many of them during a lifetime in hockey.
Officially, it was the NHL Scotiabank Dinner Behind The Bench. But this inaugural event – a collaborative effort of the National Hockey League Coaches’ Association, the NHL and the Sens Foundation – might as well have been named after the special place that benefited the most this night.
This gathering was truly Roger’s house.
Five years after cancer took his life, Roger Neilson was honoured by a who’s who of NHL coaches and general managers in attendance at the sold-out Dinner Behind The Bench. The former Ottawa Senators assistant coach died on the day of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, so it was almost fitting that Neilson be the subject of a tribute two days before the 2008 entry draft takes place at Scotiabank Place – the arena Neilson once called home.
Appropriately enough, it was done in video form. Neilson, of course, was long known as “Captain Video” for his use of that medium, one of the many innovations he gave to the hockey coaching fraternity.
“He devoted his life to the game and spent countless number of hours trying to sophisticate video and aspects of the game that were important for all of us to learn from him. I had a good teacher in Roger,” said Calgary Flames head coach Mike Keenan, whose long association and close friendship with Neilson dates back to their junior days in Peterborough.
Mentor, teacher … they’re words often associated with Neilson, whose impact touched literally thousands in the hockey world.
“He was a great teacher,” said Hockey Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, who first crossed paths with Neilson 46 years ago when he convinced him to join the Montreal Canadiens organization as a scout. “Roger was a person who was an innovator, which I think all the good coaches must do to be successful.
“He had a good passion for not only hockey but for other things and he was a busy person. He always was on the go and he did a lot for a lot of people, but he was very humble. … (The people in hockey he influenced) didn’t all make the NHL but a lot of them were successful in other avenues and I’m sure they would give credit to Roger along the way.”
Bowman, who introduced the tribute video to Neilson, said the presence of so many coaches at this event “speaks volumes for what people think of him.”
So, too, does Roger’s House, a pediatric palliative care facility opened in his memory on the grounds of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in 2006.
“It’s a wonderful facility,” said Bowman, now a special consultant with the Detroit Red Wings. “I visited it today and it would be something if everybody could see it. It’s state of the art and a great facility for people in need and it’s going to be a great legacy (to Neilson).”
Roger’s House, the charity of choice of the Sens Foundation, benefited to the tune of a cheque for $75,000 from the dinner.
“I’m happy that we’re able to do something for the community in his honour,” said Keenan. “It’s probably something that should be done in every community at draft time. Let’s take advantage of it.”