A Life's Story
December 12, 2020
Jim Neilson, one of the first Indigenous players in the NHL, made his mark over a 17-year career as an all-star defenceman who 'didn't have a mean bone in his body'
By: Geoff Kirbyson
Jim Neilson preferred to think of himself as a solid stay-at-home defenceman rather than a trailblazer, but he was most definitely both.
The veteran of 17 professional hockey seasons and one of the first Indigenous players to make the NHL, died in Winnipeg on Nov. 6 due to complications from a rare skin disorder. He would have turned 80 on Nov. 28.
He played a dozen seasons with the New York Rangers, was named an NHL second-team All-Star in 1967-68 (the same year he was fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy for the league’s best defenceman, which was won by Bobby Orr) and played in two All-Star games.
He played alongside Andy Bathgate and Gump Worsley in his first NHL season in 1962-63, and with Wayne Gretzky and Dave Semenko in his last in 1978-79 with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers.
In 1,024 NHL games, he scored 368 points (69 goals, 299 assists) and in 65 Stanley Cup playoff games he scored another 18 points (one goal, 17 assists). He added another five assists in 35 games with the Oilers before retiring.
Nobody could have predicted such a successful and productive career based on his childhood. Born in Big River, Sask., in 1940, he and his two sisters were sent to St. Patrick’s orphanage in Prince Albert when he was just five. He learned to play hockey during his 12 years there.
He would later play with the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League before turning pro with the Kitchener-Waterloo Beavers of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where he was named rookie of the year.
Marshall Johnston first skated with Neilson when they were teenagers on the Prince Albert midget team. A year later, Johnston made the Mintos but Neilson didn’t. A few years after that, Johnston was playing at the University of Denver while Neilson was suiting up for the Rangers in Madison Square Garden.
"He wasn’t good enough to make the junior team but he said, ‘OK, so I don’t make it.’ Three years later, he’s wearing a Rangers jersey. That’s how good he was," Johnston says.
Johnston, who broke into the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars in 1967 and went on to coach Neilson with the California Golden Seals in the mid-1970s, says he was well-respected on the ice.
"He was good with his stick and he was a good skater. He’d get in the way (of a forward). You didn’t have to worry about getting your neck broken because he’d never hit you from behind. He was a good, honest player," he says.
"He was very popular in New York. He was very well-respected as a defensive defenceman. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. If he’d had an edge, he would have won the Norris Trophy and been in the Hockey Hall of Fame."
Morris Mott was entering his third season with the Golden Seals when Neilson arrived in Oakland after being picked up in the intra-league draft in 1974. It was a surreal experience having him as a teammate; Mott and his dad used to watch Neilson play with the Mintos.
"I always felt closer to him than a lot of the other older players. He played in Prince Albert and I’m from down near Weyburn. I saw him play a couple of times when he was one of the better defenceman in the SJHL. That league was a big thing to me. I watched him as a junior and followed him to the NHL. Lo and behold, he came to California," he says.
Neilson was 32 when he first put on the white-and-green skates of the Golden Seals, and while he was no longer getting votes for the Norris Trophy, he was still a "very competent" blue-liner.
"He was a really wonderful guy. He never bragged about being an all-star. He tried to be helpful to the players who were younger and he tried not to aggravate anyone. In the NHL, I was just a fringe player, but he always treated me like I was one of the guys," Mott says.
He remembers Neilson saying some very encouraging things to him but he never tried to coach him, the way some veteran players would.
"He’d say things like, ‘You’ve had two good games in a row,’ or ‘I’ve been impressed with your play lately.’ He wasn’t the type of guy who would give you advice," Mott says, adding Neilson didn’t try to exploit the fact he was one of only a few Indigenous players in the big league at the time.
"He wasn’t advertising it but he wasn’t denying it, either. He just wanted to be a player," Mott says.
One of Johnston’s good friends is George Armstrong, the Toronto Maple Leafs legend who led the way for Neilson, as his mother was Ojibwa. Both men were nicknamed "Chief" by their less-than-imaginative teammates. When Armstrong, who was 11 years older, met Neilson after a game, told him not to worry about any of the racial taunts that came his way.
"He said, ‘Don’t let it worry ya, kid. You’re going to do fine,’" Johnston says. "And Jim never did. He was the nicest guy that you’d ever want to meet."
Neilson, in turn, helped pave the way for the likes of Jordin Tootoo, the first player to grow up in Nunavut to make it to the NHL. Tootoo, who’s of Inuit and Ukrainian descent, said Neilson did a "tremendous" job opening doors for Indigenous players.
"I can’t imagine how hard it was back then to be of a different heritage from everyone else and trying to fit in. The way he grew up, he was able to fight through those tough times. We are resilient and I think that’s something that has carried us for decades. You could be physically strong, but if you don’t have the mental toughness, it’s pretty tough to get anywhere in life," he says.
"There are only so many of us that have made it. When you lace ‘em up it’s all business. But we’re like family, we’re all cousins."
It was no secret that Neilson’s most intimidating opponent was off the ice — liquor. Johnston remembers doing his best to help Neilson out on the Golden Seals’ first road trip to New York in 1974. He went to his room at curfew but he wasn’t there. Neilson missed the team meeting the following morning, too.
There was a team fine of $300 for such an indiscretion, so when Johnston caught up with Neilson a short while later, he set out the ground rules.
"I said, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m the judge. If I determine at the morning skate that you’re not fit to play, I’ll say your back or knee is bothering you,’" he says.
"Jim said that was fair. There were times when maybe I let him off a little easy but I was very honest and strict with him and he respected that."
Neilson worked with the Indigenous community after he retired and he settled in Winnipeg about 20 years ago. He lived in an apartment block near the University of Winnipeg and was regularly seen in the area chatting with old friends.
Mott eventually relocated to Brandon and he’d see Neilson a few times each winter in old-timers games and tournaments.
"Jim played old-timers hockey the way it should be played. He would take the puck off the odd guy and make a play. He and (former Winnipeg Jets captain) Ab McDonald were the two best guys I ever saw playing old-timers hockey. They never got angry. They just went out there and got some exercise," he says.
Neilson is survived by his three children, Darcy Wade (Tim), Dana Neilson (Dan Downe) and David Neilson (Carly) and five grandchildren.