- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2002

PHILADELPHIA The bus carrying the Ottawa Senators rolled slowly through this city's crowded, narrow streets the other day, and the team had its own guide.
"If you want a good pizza," assistant coach Roger Neilson said from his seat behind the driver, "you go right over there. The guy's not Italian, but I guess that doesn't matter.
"Now, if any of you get cancer, right there, Hahnemann Hospital, that's a good place to go. They fixed me up pretty good. Good place, take my word."
There was some muted laughter from the players. Neilson figured there would have been more had the guys known how to take him. Still, there was some truth behind the humor; that Neilson is still around to make the joke was evidence the facility does good work.
Neilson, 67, is familiar with Philadelphia and most other NHL cities, plus a significant part of eastern Canada, where he has been coaching for a long time. Coaching is his passion; he runs things from behind a bench with the intensity of a race car driver. He is widely recognized as one of the better human beings and toughest competitors associated with the sport, which is why he was always the odds-on favorite to beat cancer.
He is also a great example of how a fiercely competitive sport can come together like a small family, watching over other individuals who battled cancer like Saku Koivu of Montreal, referee Paul Stewart, former New Jersey and assistant U.S. Olympic coach John Cunniff and the late Doug Wickenheiser, a Capitals player for a brief span.
Neilson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma nearly three years ago when he was coaching his seventh NHL team, the Philadelphia Flyers (he has worked for 10). Hahnemann was nearby for his chemotherapy treatments and, later, successful stem cell transplant. He still returns for checkups every three months.
"The Flyers have been wonderful about it," Neilson said. "Joe Kadlac [director of fan services] picks me up at the airport, takes me to the hospital, wherever else I have to go, takes me back to the plane."
It wasn't always like that. Neilson entered Hahnemann believing he had job security in Philadelphia, that Craig Ramsay was just the interim coach. Not so. Ramsay continued to coach (but was later fired) after Neilson was released from the hospital, leaving the ailing mentor behind the bench in an advisory capacity, paraded around the league in a sort of farewell tour. He had been fired by the Flyers.
"I don't even think about it," he said when asked whether it bothered him to come back to places like Philadelphia. "Every place I go, whether it's here or Toronto or Buffalo, you walk in and you know everybody. They all say 'Hi Roger,' and we talk. The fans were very nice but not like in Ottawa."
Those fans proved it this month. Senators general manager Marshall Johnston and coach Jacques Martin realized that Neilson, a veteran of the NHL wars since 1977, was two games shy of coaching his 1,000th game in the league, a milestone reached by only eight other coaches in NHL history.
Johnston and Martin decided to rectify that by giving Neilson the chance to coach two more games but that's not as easy as it sounds. The league had to be involved because Martin continues as the coach of record until he leaves, retires or is fired. Special dispensation was granted to accommodate the unprecedented and gracious move by a league that once refused to bend a rule for Wayne Gretzky, who was not allowed to maintain a streak because he missed a game for personal reasons.
The Senators' final two games of the season were selected, and Neilson coached a 4-0 win over Boston and a 5-2 loss to Toronto, leaving him at 1,000 games coached with a record of 460-381-159.
"I mean, I didn't even know I was close to 1,000 games, but those guys looked it up and they did something about it," said Neilson, leaning against a wall in the visitors' dressing room of First Union Center, where he had been unceremoniously dismissed as coach. "That they would to this for me They had my picture all over [Corel Centre in Ottawa]. The fans were waving those white towels like I did in Vancouver. Boy, they were loud. You say it's something you'll never forget, but when people are this good to you, it's about all you can think about."
It would be hard for hockey to forget what Neilson has done for his sport. When he coached junior in Canada he read the rules and discovered it was not necessary to use a goalie to defend against penalty shots. He used a defenseman and never was scored on. The rules were changed.
His nickname is Captain Video, earned because he first broke down films for hockey the way coaches had been doing in football for years. He came up with the system whereby line changes were fair for both teams and a system for gauging scoring "chances" to determine a team's offensive thrust as opposed to misleading shots-on-goal. There were no headsets behind benches until he thought of it.
His cancer is not curable ("but I talked to a guy recently who has the same thing, and he said he lasted nine years so I guess that's good"), but doctors were impressed with his most recent checkup and MRI scan. One of his cancers has started moving, and physicians think that might be due to the medication he has been taking. He is on a new medication, "and I feel better now than I have in four months."
Nonetheless, he has no intention of retiring or even taking it easy.
"When it gets to be a drag in the morning, I'll know I've had enough," he said. "But it hasn't come to that. It's still as exciting as ever breaking down the game and getting ready for the next one."

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