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 tiling 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 Pittsburgh.
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 or two?" Neilson asked.
"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. Neil-son'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.