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Neilson's Groundwork Led To Early Success

Tuesday, 07.24.2007 / 1:07 PM ET / 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 p - WSH 82 56 18 8 252 193 120
2 x - PIT 82 48 26 8 245 203 104
3 y - FLA 82 47 26 9 239 203 103
4 x - NYR 82 46 27 9 236 217 101
5 x - NYI 82 45 27 10 232 216 100
6 x - TBL 82 46 31 5 227 201 97
7 x - PHI 82 41 27 14 214 218 96
8 x - DET 82 41 30 11 211 224 93
9 BOS 82 42 31 9 240 230 93
10 CAR 82 35 31 16 198 226 86
11 OTT 82 38 35 9 236 247 85
12 NJD 82 38 36 8 184 208 84
13 MTL 82 38 38 6 221 236 82
14 BUF 82 35 36 11 201 222 81
15 CBJ 82 34 40 8 219 252 76
16 TOR 82 29 42 11 198 246 69

STATS

2015-2016 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Jagr 79 27 39 23 66
J. Jokinen 81 18 42 25 60
A. Barkov 66 28 31 18 59
J. Huberdeau 76 20 39 17 59
V. Trocheck 76 25 28 15 53
R. Smith 82 25 25 19 50
A. Ekblad 78 15 21 18 36
N. Bjugstad 67 15 19 -8 34
B. Campbell 82 6 25 31 31
B. Pirri 52 11 13 -4 24
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 35 19 6 .922 2.35
A. Montoya 12 7 3 .919 2.18

 
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