Raised partly in a Saskatchewan orphanage, Neilson played 12 seasons for the Rangers, was usually high in Norris Trophy voting in the 1960s, and was a second team NHL all-star in ’67-68. The next season, he had a career-high 44 points in 76 games. Traded to the California Golden Seals, he was on their last team before they became the Cleveland Barons, then was on the Barons’ final entry before they merged with the Minnesota North Stars. He ended as Wayne Gretzky’s teammate on the last WHA Edmonton Oilers in 1978-79.
After more than 1,000 games, he was named to the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall Of Fame and the Saskatchewan Sports Hall Of Fame.
“He was respected. He was class. He was a big boy; a good athlete,” Fred Sasakamoose, the NHL‘s first treaty Indigenous player and former Sunday Feature, said Friday of his friend in an interview with Postmedia’s Kevin Mitchell.
“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.”
Sasakamoose noted to Mitchell that he and Neilson come from the same geographic area — rural northern Saskatchewan — and both had different upbringings than their pro-hockey peers. Sasakamoose grew up in a residential school, and Neilson at St. Patrick’s orphanage.
Sasakamoose played 13 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54; Neilson, seven years younger, came along later and carved out a long and storied career.