Throwback Thursday: This week in 1977, Toronto Maple Leafs give Roger Neilson first head coaching gig

Welcome back to another edition of Throwback Thursday! 

This week in 1977 (July 25), the Toronto Maple Leafs gave Roger Neilson his first head coaching gig in the NHL as the 43-year-old replaced Red Kelly.

While Neilson’s time behind the bench in Toronto was short, it was full of wacky stories from owner Harold Ballard.

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The oddness started when Neilson, who had been interviewed by Jim Gregory for the job, found out he was hired while reading an old newspaper in an Austrian library in the summer of 1977.

In his first year, he brought the Leafs to a 92 point, 41 win season and three rounds into the playoffs. Toronto beat the LA Kings in two games in the first round, before dispatching the New York Islanders in seven games in round two.

But in round three, those Leafs were no match for the Montreal Canadiens who swept Toronto in four games. The season marked a 10 point regular season increase over the year prior and the Leafs got one round deeper into the playoffs.

In his second year behind the bench, the Leafs struggled with an 81 point regular season.

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Nielson was initially fired by Ballard after a 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens with 17 games to go with much outrage from players, media and the general public. Behind the scenes, however, there was quite a story. 

Ballard had grown impatient with “school-boy hockey,” he turned on Neilson having prior praised his use of video work and early analytics. He fired Neilson on live TV on a Thursday night, but didn’t inform Neilson who had then embarked on a flight home with the team.

But Ballard wasn’t able to find an immediate replacement and Neilson showed up at the rink at 7 a.m. the next day ready to work running practice. With players revolting, Ballard asked Neilson to actually wear a paper bag over his head behind the bench for a Saturday night game.

While that didn’t happen, Ballard kept Neilson around but still ended up firing him at the end of the season.

While the Leafs beat the Atlanta Flames in two games in the first round, they once again met a better Canadiens club. For the second year in a row, Montreal swept the Leafs.

On Twitter: @zjlaing

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