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Collins's heart sank. "When winning or losing is on the line, people can be cruel," he says. "Your immediate reaction is to run out there and protect him. But I knew it was something he had to go through. These are life lessons. Chris sank both shots and went 12 for 12 from the line."
More than a year has passed since Collins was fired. While he enjoys television work—Collins was nominated for an Emmy last year—he is beginning to think about coaching again. "I'm only 39," he says. "After Chris gets out of high school, I might like to give it another try. Right now there's a trend toward laid-back coaches, but that will change. I was talking to [Blackhawk coach and G.M.] Mike Keenan about that. He was fired by the Philadelphia Flyers for supposedly being too tough. He told me, 'You've got to remember, it's the owner's team. He can do whatever he wants with it.'
"You know, the Bulls start training camp next week, and I have a completely different feeling than I did last year. I've started reading the Chicago papers again. Eventually you realize, So what? Time does heal."
One of the wackiest firings in the history of sports occurred in 1979, when Roger Neilson, now the head coach of the New York Rangers, was dismissed not once but twice by Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard. However, even a wacky firing leaves scars on a man whose life has been so ingloriously thrown out of joint.
Neilson, who was born in Toronto, had been a highly respected Junior A coach. After 10 years with the Peterborough (Ont.) Petes, during which he built a reputation as a defensive mastermind, Neilson spent a season with the Dallas Black Hawks of the Central Hockey League before being hired in 1977 to coach the perennially disappointing Maple Leafs. "When I came into the NHL," he says, "I never thought I'd be fired. I knew the game really well, and I wasn't the kind of coach who would aggravate the players. I didn't see any way I could get fired. That changed pretty quickly."
But not because of Neilson's performance. His first season, 1977-78, the Leafs went 41-29-10, the best record Toronto had had since 1950-51. Then they upset the New York Islanders in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
Naturally, expectations were high the following season, and when the Leafs were hovering around .500 midway through the season, there were some cries for Neilson's head. One day in January 1979, while he was having a sandwich at the Maple Leaf Grill, he got an inkling that his job was on the line. "I was reading the newspaper," says Neilson, "when a report on the radio said, 'It's official. Neilson will be fired today.' Everybody kind of looked at me. I just threw my hands up and said, 'I don't know.' "
Jim Gregory was Toronto's general manager. When Neilson asked him about the report, Gregory said he didn't think it was true, but he added that Ballard would never fire anyone to his face. Neilson told Gregory, "If you know it's going to be my last game, let me know."
Nothing happened until the Leafs lost four games in a row in late February. On March 1 the team was flying to Montreal to play the Canadiens, the Stanley Cup champions. Gregory told Neilson, "It looks like after tonight you're gone."
Before the game Neilson shared the news with his players. He had grown up in Toronto during the '40s, the Leafs' glory years. He had never been an NHL player, but this had been his team. You never get over your first one. After talking with the players, Neilson went into a little side room and cried. He probably hadn't cried in 20 years. The Leafs played well that night, leading the best team in hockey 1-0 in the third period before losing 2-1.