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Influencing 65 years of Petes history: Neilson, Todd, Twohey, Green & Pronger

Sixty-five years of rich history among the walls of the Peterborough Memorial Centre has been curated thanks to a network of thousands of Petes, from players, to coaches, business operations staff, and volunteers. A variety of people have worked to make the Petes synonymous with heart and hockey.

Below are a few -certainly not all- of those figures who have worked to build the positive reputation of the mighty maroon and white.

Gary Green

Gary Green’s imprint on the team during the 1970s is a remarkable story of passion and persistence. The Tillsonburg, Ont native graduated from the University of Guelph with a degree in psychology in 1974 and worked at Tam O’Shanter Hockey School. In Hockey Town: Life Before the Pros written by Ed Arnold, Green remembers, “They thought I was 25 or 26 [he was 21]. They saw my degree. Saw that I had played pro hockey and they hired me.”

He soon became connected with established hockey minds all over the world. Feeling called to coaching, Green drove from Belleville to the Lift Lock City to ask Peterborough Petes Coach Roger Neilson if he could be an assistant. Nielson was happy to have him, but the organization didn’t have enough money to hire a full-time assistant coach. Eager to learn the craft, he agreed to work for free, on one condition: Nielson, a teacher by trade, could help find Green’s wife, Sharon, a job teaching in Peterborough. Always looking for an advantage, Nielson accepted the challenge, brought Green on as his assistant, and managed to find a teaching gig for Sharon in the city. Green, at 21 years old, became the first assistant coach in junior hockey. However, Green took on marketing responsibilities. He sold advertising for the Petes’ program and brought more fans into the arena. “I learned from one of the best coaches in the history of the game,” Green recalled proudly, 46 years after joining Nielson’s staff.

When Nielson left in 1976, Green quickly became head coach and general manager of the Petes. He led the maroon and white to their sole Memorial Cup championship in 1979. In two seasons at the helm of the bench, Green rallied a 83-37-16-0 record, captured two OHL championships, and delivered a Memorial Cup to the longest-running organization in the OHL. 

Dick Todd

Dick Todd is an OHL coaching legend. He has no ego according to many of his former players and associates. He is what you might call a player’s coach. Todd, who was with the Petes for 21 years as a trainer, then hockey coach and general manager, was a close friend of Roger Neilson’s. The pair had a mentee-mentor relationship where Todd would lean on Neilson for advice and Neilson would depend on Todd to stitch up his players as the team trainer. 

Nielsen’s move in 1976 broke Todd’s heart because, despite him and his wife falling in love with the city of Peterborough, one of Todd’s reasons to come to the Petes was the opportunity to work with Neilson. Todd stayed on and, in 1977, Gary Green gave more responsibility to the trainer, naming him assistant manager-coach. He is recognized as a trainer on the Petes club that won the 1979 Memorial Cup. 

A carousel of coaches followed Green’s departure the following season until Todd stepped behind the bench. Todd won his first five consecutive games as Petes head coach and the Petes never looked back. Doug Evans was on the team the first year Todd coached. He said, “He took a lot of pressure away. He allowed guys to play the way they are capable of playing and made the game fun.” Starting in the 1981-82 season, Todd would break all the Petes’ coaching records for wins.during his 12 full seasons. In 1988, he took home the Matt Leydon Trophy as the OHL Coach of the Year. Similar to his mentor, Todd absorbed video like a sponge, staying up late to watch games and always looking for an edge. He would give hockey advice to his players as much as he would look out for them off the ice. He wanted to make sure they did well in school and had good billett families. Todd led Peterborough to the Memorial Cup finals twice, 1989 and 1993, during his first stint with the maroon and white. Todd moved from Peterborough to the Big Apple in the fall of 1993 to join New York Rangers Head Coach Mike Keenan as an assistant coach. In his first year, the Blueshirts won the Stanley Cup. Todd would coach with the team from 1993 to 1999, and then became a scout for New York. 

Todd wasn’t finished with Peterborough yet. The winningest coach in team history returned in 2004 to steer an underperforming squad. The Petes went from second to last in the Eastern conference the year prior to second best in the conference punctuated by 12 more wins. Todd continued to prove why he holds the most wins in junior hockey as the Petes won 47 games in the 2005-06 campaign on their way to a Memorial Cup Final against the London Knights.

Todd’s legacy with the Petes is remarkable. He helped bring more than 30 junior players to the NHL as a coach and general manager, including Steve Yzerman, Chris Pronger, Tie Domi, Mike Ricci, Patrik Kaleta, and Jordan Staal. He was depended on by a couple of the most successful coaches in Peterborough history in Neilson and Green. Todd retired in June 2006 with the highest winning percentage, .615, in junior hockey. He has a career record of 558-267-62.

Jeff Twohey 

Jeff Twohey spent 29 years with the Petes starting as a scout without a car to ultimately becoming a general manager with an office (and a car). In 1981, the 23 year old Laurentian University sport administration graduate contacted the Petes hoping to become a volunteer scout. Dave Dryden, Peterborough’s coach and general manager at the time, was impressed by Twohey’s determination so he brought him in the organization. The Lindsey, Ont. native was named assistant general manager in 1989. He helped bring in guys like Chris Pronger, Mike Ricci, and Dallas Eakins to the Petes. He held that role for four years until head coach and general manager Dick Todd joined the NHL coaching ranks in 1993. Having already been around great coaches like Gary Green, and Todd, Twohey picked up the winning tradition seamlessly. The Petes won the 1996 J. Robertson Cup, and then reached the Memorial Cup finals taking place in Peterborough. In 2006, Twohey assembled a roster that won another OHL title and qualified for the Memorial Cup finals. Aside from creating dynamic teams, the former general manager had a knack for finding talent. Eric Staal taken second overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft was a Pete. So were five others taken in that draft, more than any other OHL squad: Aaron Dawson, Jamie Tardif, Mark Flood, and Trevor Hendrikx. Jordan Staal, Liam Reddox, and Patrik Kaleta led a new generation of Petes to the 2006 Memorial Cup finals a few years later. The list goes on with Jamie Langenbrunner, Ryan Spooner, Zack Kassian and more. Twohey developed hockey players as well, if not better than any other GM during his tenure. He currently works for the Florida Panthers franchise as the Ontario Scout. 

Chris Pronger

Chris Pronger boasts a resume too long to write as well as a slap shot feared by many. The 2000 Norris and Hart Trophy recipient is one of the most decorated Petes alumni of all time. Yet, Pronger was not recognized as a generational superstar when he was a teenager. He grew up in the small town of Dryden, Ont. and it would take shrewd convincing from former Peterborough General Manager Dick Todd to land the defence anchor after drafting him low. Pronger was ready to continue his education with a hockey scholarship from an American college, but agreed to participate in one Petes practice after being hounded by Todd. Everyone knew, after Pronger’s first practice, that Peterborough grabbed a steal in the sixth round of the 1991 OHL Priority Selection. 

The Dryden native’s direct and sometimes harsh temperament was appreciated by teammates. Brent Tully, his usual Petes defence partner, once explained Pronger as the most gifted player he has ever seen. “He was too smart for the OHL. He could control the game and did what he wanted. We’d almost laugh at him when he’d carve [yell at] us. The guys knew he could do what he wanted and we knew he wanted us to do it too.HIs personality and talent were way ahead of his time in all areas.” The tall blueliner could hit through the boards as easily as he could drive the offence. With Pronger in the lineup, the Petes had a season for the ages in 1992-93. They blazed through the OHL for the third time in five seasons en route to the Memorial Cup finals. At that point, it was clear Pronger was the best defenceman and skater in the OHL. The Hartford Whalers selected him second overall in the 1993 NHL Draft, making Pronger the highest Pete ever selected by an NHL team until he was joined in that distinction by brothers Eric and Jordan Staal drafted second overall in the 2003 and 2006 NHL Drafts, respectively. 

Roger Neilson

Roger Neilson and Peterborough Petes hockey are synonymous. Neilson’s footprints lie in every crevice, hallway, locker room, and arena the Petes ever built. 

Neilson joined Petes organization as a scout while they were still under ownership of the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal’s Director of Personnel Sam Pollock was one of the first people to notice Neilson’s gift for management. With the 1967 NHL expansion coming, Montreal and other NHL clubs were forced to give up ownership of junior teams in 1996. Pollock, aware that the Petes were looking for someone to oversee their player personnel, recommended Neilson, and thus the journey began.

Neilson was an innovator, to say the least, One of the first things Neilson did was change the team colors to maroon and white. His actions during games altered rules that are used today. He was known for sending out one of his players when the Petes were short handed near the end of the game because he read the rulebook with extreme attention to detail. As long as a team was already short handed a penalty could not be called until the current penalty expired. The rules have since changed. Neilson also changed the way penalty shots are played. He would send out a skater instead of his goalie and tell the skater to rush the shooter as soon as possible, frazzling opponents. Since then, hockey law mandates there to be a goalie in net and he cannot move until the shooter crosses the blue line. 
Neilson had a different way of approaching coaching. The eccentric coach was one of the early adapters of video technology and would let players watch replays of their mistakes as well as other teams’ weaknesses. Along with the demand for excellence on the ice, Neilson expected his players to be good students. Even if players got back from a game at four in the morning, they were expected to show up at school the next day. Former Pete and later Leaf Bob Neely once told the Peterborough Examiner “nobody had helped me before” like that. Former Pete Dallas Eakins once called Neilson “somebody you always wanted to be around.”

Neilson made sure to get the boys’ report cards from school. He took an active interest in speaking to parents about their teenager. Since the only other paid team employee was the trainer, the majority of the management responsibilities fell on Neilson’s shoulders. He was always coaching, watching videos, travelling to scout prospects, or keeping tabs on his players’ schoolwork.

The mighty maroon and white failed to make the playoffs only once under Neilson. He established a list of Petes alumni that included Bob Gainey, John Garrett, Craig Ramsey, Colin Campbell, Greg Millen, and Keith Acton. He kept track of a statistic that no one else did during the 70s: scoring chances. Without his creativity and unorthodox approach, the Peterborough Petes might not have had the same level of success in those early years. 

The city of Peterborough named a street after him just before his death on June 21, 2003. Roger Neilson Way runs beside the Peterborough Memorial Centre. That’s the impact of Roger Neilson.

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