Jim Neilson, a defenseman who played 12 of his 16 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers, has died. He was 79.
Neilson was born in Big River, Saskatchewan, on Nov. 28, 1940, but he and his two sisters were sent to St. Patrick’s orphanage in Prince Albert, Alberta, when he was 5 years old. Neilson learned to play hockey during his 12 years there.
He played junior hockey with Prince Albert of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League from 1958-61, often walking to games, then turned pro with Kitchener-Waterloo of the Eastern Professional Hockey League in 1961. He was named EPHL rookie of the year.
“St. Patrick’s was a good experience for me because that’s where I was introduced to hockey,” Neilson said in “They Call Me Chief: Warriors On Ice,” a 2008 book by Don Marks. “I don’t know where I would be if not for that orphanage.”
At age 22, Neilson, nicknamed “Chief,” stepped into a regular role as a defenseman with the Rangers in 1962-63.
“All of a sudden, you’re playing defense against the [Gordie] Howes and the [Jean] Beliveaus,” he told Marks. “They can make you look small, so you have to really get to know yourself, know what your capabilities are. Whereas you have to realize that you’re progressing at the same time, you still have to have confidence. You don’t let your mistakes beat you. You learn from your mistakes.”
The Rangers were in a down phase when Neilson arrived in New York, but he and longtime defense partner Rod Seiling were keys to their improvement in the late 1960s.
In 1967-68, Neilson was fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman in the League and was named an NHL Second-Team All-Star. He had the best offensive season of his NHL career in 1968-69 with 44 points (10 goals, 34 assists) in 76 games.
“Chief was tremendous on defense there when we got Rod Seiling and all these young guys,” Rangers teammate Rod Gilbert told NHL.com. “We started to be really successful. Chief and Brad Park were the two best defensemen on the Rangers, though there was nobody close to Brad. Jim was a stay-at-home guy with a great shot. He had an offensive side too. I enjoyed playing with him a lot.”
Neilson had an NHL career-high plus-38 rating in 1971-72, when he helped the Rangers advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1950, though they lost to the Boston Bruins in six games. He played in the NHL All-Star Game in 1967 and 1971.
The California Golden Seals claimed Neilson in the 1974 NHL Intraleague Draft. He played two seasons with the Golden Seals and two with the Cleveland Barons after the franchise moved in 1976. Neilson signed with the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association in June 1978 and played one season before retiring. Among his teammates in Edmonton was a 17-year-old named Wayne Gretzky.
In 1,024 NHL games, Neilson scored 368 points (69 goals, 299 assists), and in 65 Stanley Cup Playoff games he scored 18 points (one goal, 17 assists).
Neilson worked in the Indigenous community after retirement, including time spent with the Native Economic Development Program.
In 2019, Neilson’s three children began an effort to get their father into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Dad’s story, because of where he came from and how far he went in his career — being on the all-star team with Bobby Orr — you hear these things and think his story is one that should be told,” daughter Dana Neilson told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. “Should it be told in the Hall of Fame? We think so. But it should still be told, as far as we’re concerned.”
NHL columnist Dave Stubbs contributed to this report