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Hockey DayRoger Neilson's spirit alive and well in the hockey world

Posted: Friday, February 8, 2013 | 02:38 PM

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Roger Neilson, seen donning the Hockey Hall of Fame jacket in 2002, had a profound influence on Peterborough and the NHL. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press) Roger Neilson, seen donning the Hockey Hall of Fame jacket in 2002, had a profound influence on Peterborough and the NHL. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

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Roger Neilson's legacy will play a rather large role in Hockey Day in Canada celebrations in Peterborough, Ont. Even a decade after his passing his fingerprints are still evident all over the hockey world.
He was born and raised in Toronto. He studied and was presented with his first coaching gig at McMaster University in Hamilton. He was a head or assistant coach in 11 different NHL cities. There is a statue that honours him in Vancouver, and a children's hospice named after him in Ottawa.

But the place most associated with the late Roger Neilson is Peterborough, Ont., the site of Hockey Day in Canada on Saturday. There is a public school on Erskine Avenue named after Neilson there, but his spirit resonates all over the sports-mad town.

It's been almost 10 years since the hockey world packed into the Northview Pentecostal Church in Peteborough to say goodbye to the cherished Neilson. On June 21, 2003, five days after his 69th birthday, he passed away after a lengthy battle with two forms of cancer.

Neilson was a man of character, passion and compassion. He cared about the people he met, and the people he met cared about him. His imprint on the hockey world was huge and his fingerprints are still very much evident a decade after his death.

Last spring, one of his former players, Darryl Sutter, was the Stanley Cup-winning head coach of the Los Angeles Kings. One of the guys Sutter brought in to help the struggling offence, Bernie Nicholls, played for Neilson, too.

Even as the condensed NHL season approaches the one-quarter mark, there is a Neilson connection with two coaches who have their teams off to surprising starts in Bruce Boudreau (Anaheim Ducks) and Randy Carlyle (Toronto Maple Leafs). Boudreau and Carlyle played together for Neilson on the old Dallas Black Hawks of the Central Hockey League.

But Neilson's legacy doesn't stop there. There are other head coaches in the NHL like Buffalo Sabres bench boss Lindy Ruff, assistant coaches like John Anderson (Phoenix Coyotes), Keith Acton (Columbus Blue Jackets), Craig Ramsay (Florida Panthers) and Doug Jarvis (Boston Bruins), team executives like Bob Gainey (Dallas Stars) and Rick Dudley (Montreal Canadiens), scouts like Paul McIntosh (Dallas), league executives like Kris King and Colin Campbell, junior coaches like Jody Hull (Peterborough Petes), junior general managers like Jeff Twohey (Oshawa Generals) and Hockey Night in Canada broadcasters like Jim Hughson and Greg Millen.

A quick glance around the hockey world and there are at least 50 still in the game with a strong connection to Neilson. There probably are 50 more.

One coaching development I know Roger would be most proud of has been the story brewing in the American Hockey League this season with Dallas Eakins of the Toronto Marlies and Luke Richardson of the Binghamton Senators.

Richardson and Eakins were old defence partners with the 1986-87 Petes. Eakins is in his fourth season running the Marlies. Richardson is a rookie head coach. There were the two of them coaching against one another in the AHL all-star game in Providence last month.

While many feel that Eakins deserves a shot an NHL head coaching gig, it has been hard to ignore what Richardson has accomplished in his first season with Binghamton. He has the Senators tied for top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Richardson played for Neilson with the Philadelphia Flyers. Eakins was with Neilson in Florida and St. Louis.

Richardson is from Peterborough and knew all about the Neilson legacy long before they hooked up in Philadelphia. Eakins was born in Dade City, Fla., where his father worked as a long-distance truck driver. Sick of the grind, Eakins father wanted to pack up the family and move home. He was from Lindsay and nearby Peterborough became the family's new home.

A few years later, Eakins befriended the legendary Neilson.

"He was my best friend in the world," Eakins said. "He was like a father to me. I spent countless hours at his cottage in the summer, looking at videos. He would ask me questions and my opinions about players and systems. I had a great interest in the game through him."

And so does a long list of others.

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