Jim “The Chief” Neilson was one of the most dependable yet underrated defensemen the Rangers ever had.
Neilson wasn’t flashy but he got the job done and his teammates certainly appreciated his skill and steady approach to the game. When asked about Neilson, Rangers netminder Gilles Villemure once said “He stops shots, He clears the puck. What else could you want from a defenseman?” Indeed, Neilson never shied away from blocking a shot and his strong skating and deft stick handling skills enabled him to get the puck out of the Rangers zone and up to his forwards quickly.
Unfortunately some fans and writers at the time wanted Jim to use his 6’2” 205 lb body to rough up opposing forwards. But that was not Jim’s nature. He was always a very smart player and knew that running around knocking people down would eventually leave him either out of position or in the penalty box. Although he preferred to “finesse” the opposition out of the play, Jim could also throw a crunching body check when needed and the word around the league was that “when Jim hit you, you stayed hit.”
Neilson also knew how to take care of himself when the going got rough on the ice. “I don’t take any guff from anybody in this league”, Neilson often told reporters. “I hand out as much as I take. If a guy gives me a hard, clean check, I’d never complain as long as its clean. If a guy gets dirty with me, that’s different. But I’m not going to take a stupid penalty to get even. I’ll wait my turn and get him when it won’t hurt the club”.
Neilson was born on November 28, 1940 in Big River Saskatchewan. His mother was a full blooded Cree Indian and his father was a Danish fur trapper named Olaf Neilson. When Jim was just a boy, his mother left her husband and three children and returned to the reservation. Because his father spent weeks at a time in the wilderness, Jim and his two sisters were placed in St Patrick’s Catholic Orphanage in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where Jim got a good education and played a lot of hockey. Jim left St Patrick’s in his mid-teens and played for the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. He became an All Star, notching 42 goals and 56 assists in three seasons. Jim was then signed by the Rangers in 1958 and after just a single season with Kitchen-Waterloo of the EPHL, made his Rangers debut on October 11, 1962 against the Detroit Red Wings. His defensive partner that night was the legendary Doug Harvey who was also the Rangers Player-coach that season.
As a rookie, Neilson was full of youthful enthusiasm which, as expected, led to some on ice mistakes, but Harvey and fellow veteran Harry Howell took the raw rookie under their wings and taught him the finer points of the game and to focus on playing his position. Years later Jim would return the favor by tutoring Brad Park when he made his Ranger debut in 1968-69. Neilson’s strong skating also led Harvey to give him an occasional shift at left wing, where he scored his first NHL goal against Eddie Johnston of the Boston Bruins. But Jim knew his role. “I’m a defenseman. That’s what I’m paid to do. I don’t go out of my way to score goals. If they come because I’m doing my job, then alright. I get a much better feeling when I break up a scoring play or block a shot.“
Neilson spent many years teamed with another low key but efficient defenseman, Rod Seiling and came into his own during the 1967-68 season when he was named to the NHL’s Second All Star team. He also played in three All Star games: 1966-67, 1969-70 and 1970-71. His highest point total came in 1968-69, while teamed with Park, when he notched 10 goals and added 34 assists for 44 points.
Injuries began to catch up with Neilson in the early 1970’s. In February of 1970 he suffered a severe knee injury which limited his mobility. He broke his right foot twice during the 1972-73 season and missed 26 games. The next season he was plagued by knee and back problems and was sent to the California Golden Seals in June of 1974 as part of a 3-team waiver deal that saw the Rangers acquiring Derek Sanderson from Boston and the Bruins getting Walt McKechnie from the Seals. Neilson played two seasons with the Seals and remained with the franchise when they moved to Cleveland. In 1978-79 he played for the Edmonton
Oilers in the WHA and retired after the season.
In 810 games with the Rangers, Nielson scored 60 goals with 238 assists and 766 penalty minutes. Only three defensemen, Harry Howell, Brian Leetch and Ron Greschner have played more games as a Ranger than Neilson. In 65 playoff games he scored 1 goal with 17 assists and 61 penalty minutes.
Overall, in 17 seasons in the NHL and WHA, Neilson played in 1,023 games scoring 69 goals, 299 assists with 904 penalty minutes.
On the ice, Jim Neilson was a dedicated professional who never complained about injuries or bad calls.
Off ice, Neilson was known to be one of the most decent, easygoing Rangers of his time.
Jim was elected to the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. However he is even prouder of being inducted into the Prince Albert Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. “That’s the big one because that’s where I grew up” said Jim. “That’s the biggest honor.”