“Chief” was born in Big River, Sask. on November 28, 1942 and from an early age it was evident that he was destined for greatness in the sport of hockey.
Jim moved to Prince Albert when he was a child and he honed his craft while attending St. Patrick’s Orphanage. The 6 foot 2 Neilson developed into a solid defenseman and by the time he was 17 he was playing Junior A hockey with Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
One of the first Aboriginal stars of the sport, Jim turned professional when he was 19 as he played with the Kitchener Rangers of the Eastern Professional Hockey League. In 1962, Jim moved up the ladder to play with the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League and it was there where he found a home for 12 years.
With the Rangers, Jim was named the team’s top defenseman in 1966 and was runner-up for the league’s Norris Trophy for the top defenseman in 1967-68. A sophomore by the name of Bobby Orr was the only defenseman to beat him in the voting that year.
Jim remained a pillar on the Rangers blueline and in 1972 helped the Rangers advance to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to the Boston Bruins in 6 games. In 1974, Jim was traded to the California Golden Seals and while in sunny California he was named the captain of the struggling club and was also the Most Valuable Player in 1975-76.
For the next 2 years, Jim played with the Cleveland Barons and again he was the captain of the club. He was also selected as the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Award which is presented annually to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Jim completed his professional career in 1978-79 when he was part of the Edmonton Oilers who advanced all the way to the Avco Cup in the last year of the World Hockey Association. One of Jim’s teammates that year was a 17 year old rookie by the name of Wayne Gretzky.
In total, Jim played in 1,023 regular season games in the National Hockey League and amassed 69 goals and 299 assists. In 65 playoff games, he contributed 1 goal and 17 assists. Jim was named to 4 all star teams in his illustrious career and through all his hard work and dedication became a role model for the aboriginal population.
Jim Neilson was inducted into the Athlete Category of the Prince Albert Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.