In the last quarter century of his life, Roger Neilson coached ten NHL teams, and remains the only coach to have been a head coach of eight. For all that Neilson’s methods (analyzing game videos, finding playbook loopholes, and emphasizing conditioning) continue to receive praise, he had some of the worst luck with timing.
After ten seasons coaching the Peterborough Petes, a Major Junior hockey team of the OHL, Neilson began his NHL career in 1977 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Two seasons in Toronto and two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres led to three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. During the 1981-82 season, Neilson led the Canucks through the playoffs until their defeat in the finals by the New York Islanders (in the midst of their four-time winning streak). Neilson finished out the 1983-84 season coaching the Los Angeles Kings. After spending the playoffs helping the Edmonton Oilers win their first Stanley Cup, Neilson assisted the Chicago Blackhawks’ head coach for three seasons.
Then October 6th became Neilson’s record-breaking day with the start of two specific seasons. In 1989, he became the first in NHL history to have coached five different teams when he led the New York Rangers to a 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets. During Neilson’s tenure, the Rangers won the Patrick Division title in 1989-90 and the Presidents’ Trophy in 1991-92, when he nearly was named NHL’s coach of the year. Although the Rangers retained Neilson the longest – 280 games over four seasons, they fired him (in part due to tensions with captain Mark Messier) after failing to reach the playoffs in the 1992-93 season. The Rangers would go on the next season to win the Stanley Cup without him.
That meant that on October 6, 1993, Neilson became the first to coach six different NHL teams when he debuted with the brand new Florida Panthers. They tied the Blackhawks 4-4 that night but went on to set an expansion-team record with a 33-34-17 regular season and only missed the playoffs by one point. Looking back, Neilson said, “Of all the places I’ve coached, [Florida] was probably my most enjoyable two years. There was a special bond there between us all and they all felt it and I did, too.” Understandably, he was shocked at being let go. “I’ve been fired pretty much every way there is. The ones that hurt the most are the ones where you don’t figure it should happen, or out of the blue, like in Florida.” As par for the course, the Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup finals the very next season.
Neilson closed out the 1990s as associate coach for the St. Louis Blues and then head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. At the turn of the millennium, the Flyers finished first in their Atlantic Division and advanced to the conference finals but lost the seventh game (to the New Jersey Devils who then won the Stanley Cup). Partly due to his declining health, Neilson again was let loose. For his final coaching job, the Ottawa Senators hired him as assistant coach. Head coach Jacques Martin allowed Neilson to take over for the last two games of the 2001-02 season in order to reach 1,000 regular season NHL games. With the win against the Boston Bruins and the loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs (his first team), Neilson became the ninth to coach that many games. Of those, he had 460 wins, 381 losses and 159 ties.
In tribute to his innovative coaching, the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted Neilson as a builder in November 2002, and he received the Order of Canada in May 2003. Earlier that year, Peterborough renamed part of it’s main street Neilson Drive.