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Neilson's Groundwork Led To Early Success

Tuesday, 07.24.2007 / 1:07 PM / News
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Neilson\'s Groundwork Led To Early Success
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com

”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.

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STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 MTL 62 41 16 5 171 135 87
2 NYI 64 41 21 2 205 179 84
3 NYR 61 38 17 6 192 152 82
4 TBL 64 38 20 6 210 171 82
5 DET 61 35 15 11 180 159 81
6 PIT 62 36 17 9 181 155 81
7 WSH 64 34 20 10 188 159 78
8 BOS 62 31 22 9 165 161 71
9 FLA 63 28 22 13 154 178 69
10 PHI 63 27 25 11 168 183 65
11 OTT 60 27 23 10 171 163 64
12 NJD 63 26 27 10 141 164 62
13 CBJ 62 26 32 4 160 196 56
14 CAR 61 24 30 7 142 162 55
15 TOR 63 25 33 5 170 193 55
16 BUF 63 19 39 5 123 212 43

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
N. Bjugstad 63 22 16 -8 38
J. Huberdeau 60 9 27 4 36
J. Jokinen 62 6 28 0 34
A. Ekblad 63 10 23 8 33
B. Boyes 61 11 21 9 32
J. Jagr 59 12 19 -9 31
J. Hayes 54 17 10 -5 27
B. Campbell 63 3 20 3 23
A. Barkov 52 10 12 -4 22
T. Fleischmann 52 7 14 12 21
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 23 16 11 .920 2.40
A. Montoya 5 6 2 .891 2.98
 
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