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UP AGAINST THE WALL
E.M. Swift
October 29, 1990
COACHES, MANAGERS AND GENERAL MANAGERS ARE FIRED SO OFTEN THAT WE ASSUME THEY HANDLE IT WITH EASE. BUT IN PRO SPORTS, AS IN THE REAL WORLD, GETTING THE BOOT IS ONE OF LIFE'S WORST BLOWS—AND ONE OF THE HARDEST TO GET OVER
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October 29, 1990

Up Against The Wall

COACHES, MANAGERS AND GENERAL MANAGERS ARE FIRED SO OFTEN THAT WE ASSUME THEY HANDLE IT WITH EASE. BUT IN PRO SPORTS, AS IN THE REAL WORLD, GETTING THE BOOT IS ONE OF LIFE'S WORST BLOWS—AND ONE OF THE HARDEST TO GET OVER

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That night the Leafs flew back to Toronto, and the next morning Neilson showed up at Maple Leaf Gardens to clean out his stuff and say goodbye to the players. A group of reporters was on hand. Neilson told them that someone from the Leafs would make an announcement at 12 o'clock. But no one from management was there by noon, so Neilson announced his own firing.

For the next two days the Leafs tried to hire his replacement. They offered the job to three men, each of whom knew Ballard well enough to refuse. Gregory told Neilson he should stick around, so Neilson agreed to do the Leafs' radio commentary for that weekend's games. "Friday night I was in the dressing room and the trainer was cutting Harold's toenails," says Neilson. "Harold said, 'What are you doing this weekend?' And I said, 'Some radio.' Harold told me, 'Well, don't go too far away. We may need you.' It was crazy."

The next day Gregory relayed this message to Neilson: He could come back and coach the Leafs that night against the Philadelphia Flyers under one condition—he had to wear a bag over his head. He would be the "mystery coach."

"I told Jim, 'I don't think I could do that,' " Neilson recalls. "Jim said, 'Harold is letting you get back as coach, you know? Why don't you just do it in the corridor so the reporters can take a picture? You don't have to wear it on the bench.'

"I actually was considering it. Then this guy who helped me with the game videotapes said, 'Don't be crazy. You're coming out of this looking pretty good.' "

A half hour before game time, Neilson told Gregory he couldn't wear the bag. Ballard didn't seem to mind. He'd gotten a lot of publicity out of the affair, and the Leafs, with Neilson once again behind the bench, won their next five games.

Toronto finished that season 34-33-13, the last winning record the Leafs have had. By June, Neilson still hadn't heard anything from Ballard about his future. Then one evening a group of Neilson's friends were visiting his house on Lake Ontario. They were watching a sports report when the announcer said, "Coming up next, Neilson fired again."

Neilson, who was outside at the time, ran in. "There was Harold saying, 'Yeah, I don't think we're going to have him back,' " Neilson says. "So I went down to Maple Leaf Gardens the next day to see him. I said, 'I saw on TV that you hinted that I was done.' He said, 'Yeah, you know, we feel we'd like to make a change.' We shook hands, and that was it."

Neilson has been well-traveled since, coaching in Buffalo, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Chicago before landing last year with the Rangers. He has been fired only one other time, by the Canucks, another organization known for instability.

Neilson is single. "That helps," he says. "I've talked to other coaches who have been fired, and they tell me that when rumors start, everybody gets down on their kids at school. Then when you're hired by another team, there's all the problems of moving. I can move in about a half hour if I have to. On the other hand, it's nice to have someone close, like a wife, to live the whole thing through with."

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