'Doc' Nielsen had hands of surgeon

JIM BENDER -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:48 AM ET

The pass catcher they called 'Doc' never possessed the lightning quickness displayed by the CFL receiver of today. Or even yesterday.

But they say Ken Nielsen could mesmerize a pass defender with his smooth, fluid moves.

"I didn't have great speed as a receiver but I used to be able to find a way to get open," Nielsen recalled recently.

And made some of the most astounding circus catches ever witnessed when he wasn't open. In fact, some jaundiced observers have even suggested that he was the best receiver they ever saw.

Due to those heroics, Nielsen has made the grade on The Sun's top 75 Winnipeg Blue Bombers of all time, in this their 75th anniversary year, at No. 36.

"That's good," Nielsen humbly submitted.

NINTH OF ALL TIME

Although he caught passes in an age when the running game was much more prominent, Nielsen still managed to snag 280 passes for 4,340 yards (both ninth on the club's all-time list).

"I didn't know that," said the Bomber Hall of Famer. "I wasn't there that many years and there wasn't that much throwing in those days."

In fact, Nielsen was among the first flankers that CFL squads started to use in the mid-sixties. Nielsen is also still tied with three others for the most seasons leading the Bombers in receiving (five).

"The biggest highlight of my career was catching that 109-yard pass from Kenny Ploen to beat Calgary and put us in the (1965) Grey Cup," Nielsen said of the CFL playoff record. "You can't get one any longer. There's three of them now but at the time, there weren't any."

Nielsen had just graduated from dentistry from the University of Alberta and was drafted by Hamilton. But the Tiger-Cats dealt him to the Bombers for some guy named Clyde Webb.

"That Grey Cup was pretty special that first year," he said. "For a kid from Edmonton who had just graduated from the University of Alberta, to go to the Grey Cup was like a dream actually."

Although the Bombers lost that championship, the real lowlights for Nielsen were all those losing years after head coach/GM Bud Grant defected to the NFL and both Ploen and legendary running back Leo Lewis retired.

"The losing years were tough," said Nielsen, who is still filling cavities here in town. "It was like what they're going through now. You're losing, everyone's telling you what's wrong with you and they're always shipping in new players."

Yet, Nielsen still managed to make three divisional and two CFL all-star teams during that time. Nielsen also won the Schenley Award as the CFL's top Canadian in 1968.

Nielsen's accomplishments would likely have been even more impressive if a neck injury had not ended his career prematurely.

"We had gotten this veteran linebacker, Jim Conroy, in a trade with Ottawa and he caught me cracking back on him in training camp," Nielsen said. "He saw me coming and let me have it. As a result, I suffered paralysis down my left arm and doctors advised me to quit."

But even after he retired to his dental practice, Nielsen still suffered from the effects of that hit.

"Once you get nerve damage, it's pretty tough and it would keep coming back," said Nielsen, now 63. "I didn't know if I would ever be OK again, I was pretty crippled up."

A few years after he quit playing, Nielsen underwent successful surgery to remove some disks in his neck and he still has the scar to prove it.

Nielsen decided to settle down in Winnipeg, where he and his wife raised four children.

"It's a nice place, other than the complaints about the weather and the mosquitoes," he said.


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