The National Hockey League suffered a crushing blow with the passing of former defenceman Jim Neilson.
Neilson, who played 12 of his 16 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers and was considered among the greatest indigenous players passed away on Friday, November 6, 2020 at the age of 78.
“He was respected. He was class. He was a big boy; a good athlete,” said Fred Sasakamoose, who was the NHL’s first treaty Indigenous player.
“I respected him because of the way he handled himself. He was really a gentleman. It’s difficult sometimes when you’re on that ice—you’re just like a tiger. He was a strong man, raw-boned, and he looked after himself real good in the NHL with no difficulty. That’s the kind of person he was. He trained hard, and that’s why he stayed there for so long.”
Born November 28, 1941, in Big River Saskatchewan, Neilson, who was affectionately known as ‘Chief’ broke into the NHL in 1962/63, where for 12 years he was a fixture on the Rangers blue line. Following the 1973/74 season, Neilson left Broadway and spent the following two campaigns playing for the California Seals. Starting in 1975/76, this veteran spent two seasons playing for the Cleveland Barons before winding up his career in 1978/79 for the WHA Edmonton Oilers where he competed in 35 games.
During his tenure with New York, Neilson was a serious candidate for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s best defenceman.
While playing for the Rangers, Neilson was a second team all-star in 1967-68, when he scored six goals and 35 points while racking up 60 penalty minutes. The following season saw him post career highs in goals with 10 and points at 44.
The highlight came in the 1971-72 season when Neilson was on a Rangers team which made the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1950. They ended up falling just short as they lost to the Boston Bruins in six games.
His NHL career spanned 1,023 games where he totalled 69 goals, 368 points along with 904 penalty minutes. Recognized for his long career, Neilson was indicted into the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall Of Fame along with the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
“The Rangers mourn the passing of Jim Neilson. The ultimate defensive defenceman,” The Rangers said in a statement. “Jim’s quiet demeanor& selfless nature belied the integral role he played on some of the best teams in NYR history. Our thoughts are with Jim’s family, friends& countless people he influenced.”
He will be sadly missed by the National Hockey League.