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  • To pay tribute to Roger Neilson on the 10th anniversary of his passing HMI is posting comments given at his memorial service by Don Liesemer.

    "Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55)

    We are all driven to press on, to achieve in life… But what about the man that is driven by the: Quiet, cool, rock-solid confidence …That physical death is not the end?  That eternal life in heaven is a gift to be claimed?

    That kind of man is: Tenacious, and persistent, unshakeable, and enduring; Passionate about his beliefs; that kind of man is able to look at what many…consider a sentence of death and say:"God has a purpose for my life. If his plan is to heal me that would be great, but if not, then with all due respect, heaven is a far greater place than Philadelphia!

    That kind of man was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. He became a member of the Order of Canada two months ago. He was rewarded an honorary Doctorate degree from McMaster University one year ago. He coached 1000 NHL games and won 9 Metro Toronto Championships in minor hockey. He coached the Peterborough Petes for ten years finishing in the top three of the league standings eight times and went to the Memorial Cup final in '72

    That kind of man got a reputation for breaking the mould…And stretching the rules…He loved a good game and loved when the battle was over, to experience the sweet taste of victory!

    Today, Roger Neilson is experiencing victory in heaven. He believed in Christ…And in the Apostle Paul's inspired and triumphant statement…

    "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

    He had so many awesome and unique character traits…Very unique character traits that made him the memorable man that he was. Roger was as kind and compassionate to someone he just met as to people he knew for many years. It would be an understatement to say that Roger was a role model to the thousands of people who looked up to him for guidance. He was an eternal optimist who lived his life with quiet courage and determination.  When told that he had a second kind of cancer and that the life expectancy of each type was five years…rather than divide by two he multiplied by two and gave himself at least ten years.  That was Roger…

    It seemed that he was forever in a jackpot of one kind or another. Ironically, the more that Roger challenged the norm the more he was embraced by so many because of his genuine character.

    I do have a couple of stories that I would like to share with you today which I trust will capture some of these remarkable traits.

    Nuns at the Airport

    Several years ago Roger and I agreed that I would take him to the airport for an early flight. So I got up at 5 AM to drive him to the Regina airport after one of our Christian hockey camps at Briercrest Bible College. I wanted to make sure that he arrived on time and got the flight to his Toronto destination and didn’t end up in Vancouver. Of course he was asleep before I started the car. No surprise!  He awoke as we pulled into the airport parking lot an hour later.  I asked him if he would put the money in the meter while I looked after his bags. I gave him all the change I had. There were two meters on the post in front of our car. His job was to put the money in the meter on our side.  However in his normal drowsy state, he put the money in the wrong meter. I didn’t bother asking him for an explanation but just requested that he save our spot while I quickly moved the car.

    Can you believe it? Just then a van pulled into our space. We were out of change so I asked if he could explain our mistake to the driver and kindly ask her to move. Now we all know that Roger was a master negotiator… who lost very few battles over the years…with opponents…players…media… and officials…I noticed that the van was filled with a team of Catholic nuns all dressed in their team uniforms. As the negotiations dragged on I began to realize that a drama was unfolding. Roger’s arms were waving…. back and forth.  Time seemed to stand still…. I wondered what they were saying. Why was this so difficult?  Surely he wasn’t getting exasperated with these dear sisters. Was the nun actually shaking her fist at him or just pointing towards heaven? 

    He finally threw up his hands and headed back to the car."What’s up Roger?" "They won’t budge!" he said. “They feel that the money in the meter is a gift from the Lord and I couldn’t talk them out of it!” There are some times in life when all the negotiating strategies in the world just will not work. Some things are just not meant to be.

    Just so you know though…those nuns earned Roger’s respect that day…because in a way they both believed the same thing. You see they both believed that when you receive a gift from God, that no one can talk you out of it. Roger believed that. He believed that his faith was a gift from God. He would never compromise that. It was something that he wouldn’t be talked out of. If he had, he wouldn’t have experienced the peace and hope until the end.

    I first met Roger when he waited to speak with me after one of my midget games in Mildmay, Ontario many years ago. He was scouting for the Canadiens at the time.  Through several meetings with my parents and a junior training camp in Peterborough, I ended up playing Junior hockey in Montreal. I often told Roger that he never would have made it to the NHL if he hadn't discovered me and established himself as a great talent scout.

    His response was always the same, "That's why I became a coach ‑ they knew I was a lousy scout."

    In one way or another, either directly or indirectly, he had a very strong and positive influence on my life ever since. As a result of meeting him that day, the whole direction of my life changed.

    For years, Roger participated in Hockey Ministries programs. He taught at our Christian hockey schools. Watching Roger work with children and youth reminded me of the picture of Jesus in the Bible as he patiently reached out to and welcomed children…with compassion, tenderness and respect. He cared for each one…always had a gift…always had time…

    The innovative and highly successful NHL coach was an inspirational leader and had a great impact on all who played for him.  His players loved and respected him.  Mike Gartner was one of them. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Mike referred to Roger as “his best coach ever”. That's quite a compliment from a Hall of Famer.

    Christmas Mailing

    Former Leaf star Ron Ellis once commented that he liked Roger as a coach because he had a great capacity to make every team member feel important and have a role on the team. Roger did the same thing with friendships as he established his ever-widening circle of friends, which really became his family.  He had a special gift of making all feel important.

    In 1997 while he was coaching in St. Louis, I experienced a behind the scenes look at this dedication. While the Blues were in Montreal one December, he phoned several times to make sure that I could meet him after practice. He invited me to the coaches’ room where he had two large goalie bags and three or four substantial boxes all filled with mail. We jammed them into my station wagon and headed to the post office. He had brought all of this cargo on the plane to save the cost of mailing them from the U.S. After dragging the boxes and bags over the snow banks and streets, we crowded into a small Montreal Post office packed with impatient Christmas mailers. Santa Neilson’s bags were full of cards and larger envelopes; each one needing postage.  Can you picture Roger at the counter meticulously organizing the postage on each package…unmoved by the  boos and heckling from the crowd behind who probably had no idea who he was? And I thought… this was only his Canadian mailing…Imagine…each card personally signed…each package carefully put together…each recipient touched by the kindness of this dear man…Now isn't this the real spirit of Christmas?

    This was the Roger we all loved… During these last few years he said that when he couldn’t sleep at night that he would talk to God and ask Him to come down and wrap His arms around him and help him to sleep. And the Lord would answer his prayer. I have highlighted in my Bible a statement written by the prophet Isaiah beside which I have a notation, Roger’s favorite verse:

     "For I am the Lord your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, Do not fear I will help you”  (Isaiah 41:13).

    This was a great encouragement to Roger and comforting words for all who mourn his passing. Indeed God will help us.

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