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Looking back on Jim Neilson

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The Rangers need to do a better job of telling their own story.

Montreal Canadiens v New York Rangers Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Rangers twitter account posted a rather innocuous tweet centered on newly drafted defender Braden Schneider.

It is a rather run of the mill, get to know the new guy kind of graphic showing you a bit about the young defenseman off the ice. What drew my attention to the tweet was how the Rangers presented it, focusing on who Schneider’s favorite Ranger past or present is. Schneider selected Jim Neilson as his favorite Ranger and until that moment, I had never heard of Neilson. It also struck me as odd that a kid born 22 years after Neilson last played pro hockey would choose him as his favorite player.

I was really curious about this and ran a very rudimentary Twitter poll between Monday and Tuesday, with results that I didn’t find all too surprising, though the split in the votes did cause me to raise an eyebrow.

(Yes, I know I misspelled Neilson’s name in the tweet. I didn’t want to delete in fear of losing the already tabulated votes.)

So, of the 511 people that chose to vote in my poll, 60 percent of them said that they had no idea who Jim Neilson is or they clarified that they hadn’t heard of him until that Schneider tweet. I also asked people who voted to say how long they’ve been a fan of the team and many of the respondents said that they have been fans since the 90s or more recently. While it may not seem like a big deal that people that have been fans for only the last 15-20 years don’t know who Jim Neilson is, that really isn’t their fault. And this is where my issue with the Rangers comes in.

The New York Rangers suck at telling their own story.

Now look, I get it. In the grand scheme of things, the Rangers not having an easily accessible detailed account of every player that ever played for them is not the biggest of deals. However, for a team that touts its tradition and 90 years of history as a major part of its brand, it does a really poor job of highlighting players and people like Jim Neilson.

For those who don’t know, Neilson was a defenseman for the Rangers for 12 years, first entering the league in 1962 as an 18 year old. At 6’2’, 205lbs., Neilson wasn’t the fleet-footed offensive defenseman like some of his contemporaries, but he earned his reputation and road-map nose by standing up opposing players at the blue line and making life hell for anyone who got by him and into the Rangers zone.

1970 Quarter Finals - Game 2: New York Rangers v Boston Bruins Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

The big man from Big River, Saskatchewan quickly became a fan favorite in Manhattan and came of age alongside another young defenseman with a different skillset in Brad Park. Park, another player who the Rangers sorely do not celebrate enough, along with the GAG line, helped power the Rangers through the late 1960s to early 1970s, battling it out with Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. Through it all, Neilson was there to hold down the fort and add to the defensive support. During his time as a member of the Blueshirts, Neilson was named to two All-Star Games, in 1967 and 1971, he was named a 2nd team All-Star in 1967-68, and was a two-time top five Norris Trophy finalist. He also totaled 60 goals and 238 assists for 298 points in 811 games on Broadway before moving through the mid-70s NHL being named captain of the California Golden Seals, later the Cleveland Barons. Finally ending his career in the WHA with the Edmonton Oilers in what was Wayne Gretzky’s first year in Edmonton.

Neilson’s career is one of those that is touted by older fans that probably wouldn’t resonate much with today’s fanbase. So what made him standout to a kid born in the 21st century One big reason is that Neilson had a major impact in growing hockey among the First Nation and Aboriginal communities in Saskatchewan, as Jim was one of the first aboriginal players to play in the NHL, following in the footsteps of fellow New York Ranger, Henry Maracle who was one of the first First Nations players to appear in the NHL way back in 1933.

This is where we need to address the Rangers’ failing here. After sending out the tweet that started all of this, the Rangers just... assumed that everyone knew who Jim Neilson was. Again, not the biggest of deals in the long run, but if you’re going to reference a player that last played in New York almost 50 years ago, maybe provide some more context. The fanbase is consistently getting younger and younger and the team needs to address that in a variety of ways, including going into the vaults and educating the fans on not just players during the Rangers’ successful years but throughout the team’s history. It is also important to mention that as the fanbase gets younger, it’s becoming more diverse. Sharing the stories of Jim Neilson and Henry Maracle could go a long way in getting more fans interested and invested in the team.

Now, don’t get me started on the lie of the “Original Six” and the erasure of the New York Americans.

While discussing and reminiscing about Jim Neilson, please avoid referencing his nickname and the fan “mascot” that came around while he was on the Rangers. It is incredibly insensitive and highly racist.