Jim Neilson was a crunching body checker who played hard but fair. Though his physical presence was feared, he was considered a true gentleman of the ice.
Despite his tough play he never recorded more than 95 PIMs in one season and rarely engaged in fights. A very good positional defenseman he patrolled the blue line in the NHL for over 1000 NHL games. During his 17-year pro career he never was sent down to the minors which further underlines his steady play.
Most people knew that Jim was a half native. His mother was a Cree Indian. But few knew that he also was a half Dane. His Danish father was a mink rancher. Because of family difficulties, young Jim and his sister were placed in an orphanage. Jim only had fond memories from that time though.
"I'm glad I went there. And if I had to do it again. I'd still go," Jim said.
He was luckier than other children in the same situation because he didn't have to stay on a reservation.
Jim played three seasons for the Prince Albert Mintos of the SJHL where he played with a maturity beyond his years. He also played for the Kitchener-Waterloo Beavers of the EPHL. Neilson admitted that the coaching in Prince Albert wasn't very good. Players his age received needed expert instructions since they were not at the same level his natural instincts allowed him.
Despite his lack of formal training, Neilson drew the eyes of the New York Rangers bird dogs.
"When I came up with the Rangers, there wasn't one or two things I was weak on. I would be making six or seven different mistakes a game, " Neilson said.
"The Chief" made a quick transition to pro hockey however, and quickly became a vital part of the NY Rangers defense in his first year.
An extremely strong skater, Neilson was a big guy on skates, standing 6-2 and weighing 205 pounds. He was very agile, however, and had a great poke-check. He also had a solid understanding of the offensive game and created considerable offensive opportunities in the pre-Bobby Orr era of rushing defenseman. In fact, Neilson's size, skating and offensive knack occasionally landed him on left wing. In fact, his first NHL goal was scored as a forward.
However it was his solid though not flashy defensive ability that he will forever be remembered for. He would play 12 very solid seasons for the Rangers that included one trip to the Stanley Cup finals and two All-Star games. He broke into the league under the watchful guidance of Doug Harvey and later teamed with Brad Park, two of the NHL's all time great defenders. He was mostly remembered as one half of a long standing New York tandem with Rod Seiling.
Neilson suffered a serious knee injury in a game on February 13, 1970 against Oakland. He got a special brace for the knee that was constructed by the famous orthopedist Dr. James A. Nicholas who earlier on had operated Joe Namath's knees. Neilson got that special brace that only one other athlete had tried before - Namath. Jim wore the metal contraption for a while but discarded it for an elastic brace.
"I found I couldn't make sharp turns with it. If I took the puck behind the net, I'd have to make a wide circle before bringing the puck out. And it hurt. After a while my knee would become numb."
Jim was a fast healer and was skating after only a month. Neilson continued patrolling the blue line in New York until 1974 when he was left unprotected by the Rangers and was claimed by California in the intra-league draft. The California Golden Seals was looking for an experienced defenseman to anchor their thin defense core and Jim was their man. He got a lot of ice time for the dreadful Seals in his first year. Together with the young defenseman Rick Hampton they had the most ice time of all Seals players. This was evident in the +/- rating. Rick Hampton finished with a - 40 rating and Jim with - 46.
In his second year with the Seals, Jim tore his knee ligaments and missed most of the 1975-76 season. The Seals franchise then relocated to Cleveland and became the Cleveland Barons. He played two more years in Cleveland. When Minnesota and Cleveland merged in 1978 he was put on their reserve list. WHA's Edmonton Oilers signed the almost 38-year old Jim as a free agent. Jim went on to finish his career in Edmonton by playing 35 games for them in 1978-79. It was an Edmonton team that just had got a barely 18-year old Wayne Gretzky.
His NHL totals would show 1,023 games played (810 of which were with the Rangers), along with 69 goals, 299 assists, 368 points and 904 penalty minutes in 16 seasons.
Jim summed it up best when he described himself.
"I'm not flamboyant. Some guys, well, you know when they're around, even on the ice. You know me, I don't make a big deal out of things. I just take them as they come. "
He indeed did that and ended up playing 17-years in the pro leagues.