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."