His success at the junior and pro ranks is well documented. Like most volunteer coaches Roger Neilson began with opportunities in minor hockey. He began coaching kids as a 17 year-old student while attending Hamilton, Ontario’s, McMaster University. That season, 1951-52, he guided a collection of children sponsored and known as “Dave’s White Rose.” He won his first title in 1952-53 as his Ideal Welding club captured the Bantam “B” championship.
He followed up with a Toronto Hockey League title with Toronto’s Shopsy’s Pee Wees in 1953-54. He continued with Shopsy’s while adding to his coaching reign the Lake Shore Motors Juvenile team in 1954-55. In 1955-56, Neilson coached Westlake Motors Juveniles to a THL championship while also running the bench for Leaside’s bantam and midget aged clubs. He coached two minor bantam clubs in 1956-57, the North Toronto Grads, who went on to win an intermediate title, and the Leaside Rangers. He coached the latter club for a second season in 1958-59. He spent the next two season’s guiding the Bick’s Pickles sponsored Pee Wee team.
In 1961-62, he agreed to take the reigns of the Ontario Hockey Association’s Junior “B” Aurora Bears. A championship season followed in 1962-63 as the Bick’s Pickles midgets won the THL and Ontario provincial title. In 1963-64, he moved again to coach the Toronto North Lions major midget team. In 1965-66 and 1966-67 he looked after the Weston Dodgers midgets. At this same time, Neilson was actively involved with coaching minor baseball in the Toronto area. In ten seasons, Neilson won nine Metro Toronto championships.
The next chapter in his coaching career involved making the jump to the OHA junior “A” loop. He would spend the next decade coaching the Peterborough Petes. Neilson’s teams would finish in the top three of the league standings eight times and the Petes reached the 1972 Memorial Cup final after capturing the OHA Junior A crown. His peers tagged him “Rule Book Roger” during this time as Neilson created a need for rule book changes by taking advantage of weaknesses in the existing rules. He was also adamant about his players obtaining an education. As a high school physical education teacher, Neilson had his players doing aerobic training on the ice long before it was an accepted North American practice. He also introduced breaking down videotape, a noted coaching aid that later earned him the nickname “Captain Video.” In fact, as a new coach in the NHL, Neilson would spend hours digesting the recently played game on videotape, often spending all night until dawn to do so.