Publish date:

Though he's battling an incurable cancer, Roger Neilson thinks he should be back behind the bench in Philadelphia. The Flyers--and his doctors--disagree

Roger Neilson bet his doctors that there was no way on god's
sweet earth that he would lose all his hair, because the roots
were buried too deep in cement. Through 63 days of chemotherapy,
the Philadelphia Flyers' coach beat the odds, but his doctors
cautioned him that his March 10 stem-cell transplant to treat
multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer that strikes plasma cells,
would wipe out most of his hemoglobin and platelets and reduce
his white-cell count to zero. Hair would be collateral damage in
that war.

With only a little prompting from a reporter, Neilson doffed his
battered, russet-colored Abercrombie & Fitch baseball cap last
Thursday. There were wisps and tufts, limp strands and defiant
patches. These weren't the tight ringlets of the Prince Valiant
haircut that once defined Neilson's appearance behind the bench
as much as his garish $5 ties. Still, that sparse gray and brown
coif was all his. "His hair," says Nancy Nichols, Neilson's
friend of almost 25 years, "is as stubborn as he is."

If Neilson had been less stubborn, the Flyers' refusal to give
him back the coaching reins for the playoffs would not have
caused such controversy and hard feelings. Of course, if he had
been meekly compliant, he would not have been Roger Neilson.
This is not a weepy account of a vigorous 65-year-old struck by
the same cancer that claimed his sister, Joan, three years ago;
Neilson simply won't permit it. He has treated his cancer as a
cosmic gag since it was diagnosed in December because he's
convinced the Lord has a master plan for him. Doesn't Romans
8:28 say, "And we know that all things work together for good to
[those] that love God"?

This isn't as much a tale of cancer as it is of circumstance and
agendas, a story larded with the best intentions and the worst
results. There are no villains. There's Philadelphia general
manager Bob Clarke, who has been almost laughably inept at
fending off the public crises that buffet his team, who saw the
Flyers respond splendidly to interim coach Craig Ramsay and was
then criticized for brusquely shoving a cancer patient into the
background, even if it was the best thing for Neilson and
Philadelphia. There's renowned oncologist Isadore Brodsky, who,
in trying to cut the huge doses of chemotherapy with therapeutic
rays of sunshine, offered a lollipop of hope to Neilson. There's
Neilson, who was stung by what he thought to be shifting medical
opinions and equivocations by Philly management that forestalled
his return and deprived him of his best, last chance to guide a
team to a Stanley Cup championship. "Roger was seeing it only in
black and white," Clarke says of Neilson, who missed the nuances
in the encouragement from Brodsky and Clarke.

In another tormented week in Flyers Nation, Neilson had his
hopes of being the coach this spring dashed on April 24, lashed
back at team brass in a radio interview on April 25, apologized
on April 26 and saw the Pittsburgh Penguins shut out
Philadelphia 2-0 on April 27 for their first win in Philly in
six years. Last Saturday, Neilson knotted a seemingly
fluorescent tie, tugged on his A&F cap and pulled on a headset.
From a box on the distant press level, he communicated with the
Flyers' bench. His bench. Philadelphia lost 4-1 and trailed the
Penguins two games to none going into Tuesday's Game 3 in

A Roger story: He was in his office in the fall of 1998,
addressing a package and chatting with the Flyers' beat writers.
"Does Bernie Nicholls spell his name with one l or two?" Neilson

"Two," said one of the reporters. "You're sending something to
Bernie Nicholls?"

"No," Neilson replied. "I'm sending something to my friend.
Can't remember how she spells her name, but I know it's the
opposite of Bernie's."

That Neilson would need to define Nancy Nichols in terms of
former 70-goal scorer Bernie Nicholls is hardly surprising.
Neilson's life always has been refracted through the prism of
his sport.

Another Roger story: In the late 1960s, when Ramsay and some of
his junior teammates in Peterborough, Ont., arranged a date for
their bachelor coach, Neilson asked whether they thought the
woman would prefer attending a Junior B or a Midget game.

The NHL has never welcomed iconoclasts--except for Neilson.
"He's so well accepted because everyone understands his love for
the game," says Flyers right wing Jody Hull, who also played for
Neilson with the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers. "Put
a camera on him 24 hours a day, and he'd be at the rink 20."

In the fall, winter and spring Neilson has his NHL team. In the
summer he runs his camp in Lindsay, Ont., his coaches' clinic in
Windsor, Ont., and his hockey clinic in Israel. Neilson has
worked for nine NHL teams in the past 23 seasons and been fired
more than any man should be--four times, to be exact--but
instead of a web of rancor and recrimination he has a network of
friends. Neilson's legacy might not be the groundbreaking work
he did with video in the early 1980s or his resuscitation of the
accursed neutral-zone trap in the early 1990s, but his
astonishing lack of enemies. "It's his honesty that draws people
to him," says Ramsay, who played for Neilson on the Buffalo
Sabres from 1979-80 through '80-81 and was his assistant in
Florida before joining him in Philadelphia. "Roger genuinely
likes people, genuinely cares about his players. Not just their
performance, their lives. You sense quickly it's not just what
you can do for him but also what he can do for you."

Neilson's lack of everyday skills is at the heart of most Roger
stories, like the classic in which he complained about the size
of the TVs until the salesman explained he was in the microwave
section, and the one in which he grumbled about a defective
remote control until he figured out he had been trying to change
channels for 15 minutes with a calculator. Neilson has more
ethereal gifts, like passion. "The scary thing is, Roger almost
put coaching ahead of his health," Clarke says. "People always
say health is the most important thing. In this case it's been
like, To hell with my health, I want to coach."

Neilson won't disagree. He merely was operating from a different
perspective. "I felt I was the coach of the team, and if I was
ready to coach, I should be coaching," says Neilson, who
remained behind the bench for two months after the cancer was
diagnosed. The sentiment is noble, and naive. Neilson wasn't the
only slave to a timetable. Clarke had a window of two months in
which to win a Stanley Cup, a feat that suddenly seemed more
plausible under Ramsay, who had shortened shifts, spread out ice
time and relied more on rookies, such as goalie Brian Boucher
and defenseman Andy Delmore, in leading Philly to a 16-8-1-0
record after Feb. 19. The 49-year-old Ramsay had earned the
chance to take his team through the postseason just as a
Vancouver Canucks assistant had in 1982 when coach Harry Neale
returned from a 10-game suspension late in the season to find
the Canucks playing better than they had for him. That assistant
was 47-year-old Roger Neilson, and he guided Vancouver to the
Stanley Cup finals.

Three weeks ago Neilson returned to Philadelphia from
convalescing in Sarasota, Fla., expecting to coach in the first
round, to the shock of Clarke and the doctors. Instead, he was
ushered to the press-level box for Game 1 against Buffalo and
handed a headset instead of his team. He bolted the next
morning, eventually making it to Dallas, where Nichols, a food
writer for D magazine, lives. Neilson's status for the second
round remained in doubt until April 24, when his oncologists,
Brodsky and Pamela Crilley, refused to sanction his return.
"There are various periods of time after which people return
full time to their jobs following a stem-cell transplant, but
three to four months is usually the quickest," says Crilley, who
performed Neilson's operation. "Roger's still early in the
transplant process. The first 100 days are a critical time."

The story might have ended there had Neilson walked off into the
sunset. Instead, he pedaled off on his
bicycle--literally--without comment after meeting with Clarke on
April 24 and then went on The Fan 590, an all-sports radio
station in Toronto, the next day. Asked if his relegation to
peripheral coaching duties might be linked to his friendship
with injured and deposed Flyers captain Eric Lindros, Neilson
replied, "I don't think they want a cancer patient who's a
friend of Eric Lindros's behind the bench right now. That may be
part of it."

There's always a murky subtext in the Flyers' byzantine world,
usually centering on Lindros. Lindros might indeed return from
postconcussion syndrome in the third round, if Philly advances
that far, but given his rift with Clarke, it's almost
inconceivable that he will be playing for the Flyers next
season. Neilson was the first Philadelphia coach who earned
Lindros's unqualified support. With Lindros out of the picture,
Neilson's value would decrease exponentially. Neilson thought he
had an oral agreement in February with Clarke on a two-year
contract extension, a deal that included a nonpayment clause if
cancer ever interfered with Neilson's going behind the bench.
Clarke says he spoke in generalities with Neilson's agent but
deferred a decision until after the season.

Neilson dismissed his comments on radio as a joke that had
fallen flat, although, if his words had been merely a misguided
attempt at deadpan wit, why did he add, "That may be part of
it"? He also noted that Clarke, who had lent Neilson his house
in Florida for convalescence, and Flyers owner Ed Snider, who
had given Neilson use of his private plane, had treated him like
a king.

"From the get-go I wish the healing process hadn't been put in
terms of first round, second round," Nichols says. "I always
objected to that. He should have been dealt with like any other
patient. On February 20 [when Neilson left the Flyers to prepare
for the stem-cell transplant] I wish Bob Clarke had said we'll
gas this season and Roger can come back next year, just as if he
had needed knee surgery."

Clarke agrees in part, saying he should have announced initially
that Neilson's status with the Flyers would not be evaluated for
six months or more. Brodsky, who has been involved with 1,000
stem-cell transplants, says, "If I erred on the side of
encouraging Roger too much, I'm guilty. This was a real
breakdown in communication."

Neilson, too, might one day look back and decide he should have
been less strong-willed, even though that will is what he hopes
can put him back behind an NHL bench next season--if not with
Philadelphia, then with another team willing to bet on a long
shot. "I'll be a 66-year-old who's had cancer," says Neilson,
smiling. "That's something to put on your resume."


COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Lid lifter Jaromir Jagr, who scored two goals as Pittsburgh triumphed 4-1 in Game 2, was himself victim of a hat trick.

Neilson expected to coach, though he had undergone a stem-cell
transplant only 34 days before.