Roger still an inspiration

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 3:31 PM ET


 TORONTO -- Mike Fisher could imagine the reaction.

 The Senators forward paused yesterday and smiled, thinking how former Senators assistant coach Roger Neilson would have reacted to Fisher's overtime winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 6 Sunday night.

 "I could picture him up there (in the press box). I remember last year hearing about his reaction to an overtime winner. He'd give it the fist pump," said Fisher, whose goal forced Game 7 here tonight.

 The Senators' season lives on, a season dedicated to the memory of Neilson who passed away last June after a two-year battle with cancer.

 Neilson touched a lot of people in the world of hockey, but few as much as many members of the Senators.

 Fisher especially so. They were both Peterborough guys, sharing their roots, sharing their faith, sharing the challenge of taking the Senators to a new place.

 "I think it was because they had so many things in common in their lives that Mike had a special place in Roger's heart," said Senators assistant coach Perry Pearn, who valued his time with Neilson as much as anyone.

 "Roger's heart was in Peterborough and Mike is a Peterborough product. Mike and Roger got together here and it was a situation where the kind of leadership Roger brought here was the kind of leadership Mike was looking for."

 Neilson had the ability to offer criticism without grinding a player down. "He would have them make changes, but do it in such a way they came away feeling good about themselves," said Pearn.

 Perhaps the greatest lesson came when the Senators witnessed the grace and dignity with which Neilson fought the ravages of his illness, all the while still coaching, scouting, doing what he could to try and make the Senators a winner.

 It culminated with the speech he gave to the Senators last year in the Eastern Conference final against the New Jersey Devils. Down 3-1 in the series, Neilson, bald and frail at that point, shuffled into a meeting before Game 5 of that series and gave a stirring speech, the words and message still resonating with this Senators team.

 'SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY'

 "I don't think the guys who were here have forgotten that," said Fisher who went out with his teammates and won Games 5 and 6. "He told us to seize the opportunity when you get it and give it everything you've got and the odds will be in our favour, especially with all the talent we've got.

 "I can still picture it, what he was saying and we can all draw on that, I think."

 "Hopefully we can close this series out in Roger's memory and do it for him."

 The Senators staged a marvellous rally in Game 6 Sunday night after a slow start, sparked by a goal by defenceman Zdeno Chara, who summoned up a shift about as good as you will see from a defenceman in the playoffs.

 He closed it out by scoring the goal that tied the game, setting the stage for Fisher's winner.

 It took them a while, but they did seize the opportunity.

 "One of the things that was so poignant about (Neilson)'s talk last year was these type of opportunities, like the chance to win a Game 7, only come along so often in a career," said Pearn.

 "There is no way of knowing how often you will be here. You can take for granted it's going to happen every year, but you have to take advantage now because it is so crucial in fulfilling yourself as a player at this level."

 Fisher, along with other Senators, wear hats around the dressing room with the commemorative patch the Senators are also wearing on their sweaters this year.

 His presence is still felt. His words still have weight.

 The Senators will take them to heart again today in the hours leading up to Game 7.

 "We all obviously miss him ... the hats and the crests are all reminders of what he brought to us," said Fisher. "We all know what he brought as a coach. It's what he brought as a person. He was a fighter. He was a funny guy, a good person to be around, a fun-loving guy. He had a love of the game of hockey and he spread it around with people.

 Did Fisher think Neilson would have taken particular satisfaction from the goal given it was against the Leafs?

 "I think so," said Fisher with a laugh. "No one likes to lose to those guys."


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