Nykoluk, who virtually disappeared from the hockey scene after losing his job as head coach of the Maple Leafs in 1984, took a rare step back into the public eye when he was inducted along with Dick Gamble, Gil Mayer and the late Fred (Bun) Cook into the AHL Hall of Fame during the league’s all-star game luncheon Monday.
Nykoluk, who has called Naples, Fla., home for nearly 20 years, is 72 now.
Crusty owner Harold Ballard hired Nykoluk in 1981 to be the lion tamer in his hockey circus.
GM Punch Imlach wanted somebody else, but Ballard hired Nykoluk because he was disenchanted with the second coming of the man who had coached the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s.
Imlach had ripped apart a good team with trade after trade and had alienated the soon-to-be-dispatched Darryl Sittler.
So, in comes Nykoluk, who had earned two Stanley Cup rings as assistant coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. Imlach gets sick and Ballard gives him the cold shoulder and lets him go. Enter Gerry McNamara, who’s unlikely to be on anybody’s list of the top 1,000 GMs in NHL history. The Leafs miss the playoffs. Rick Vaive emerges as a 50-goal scorer, but the Leafs get knocked out in the first round the next season.
Nykoluk, an easy-going sort when he got the job but easily provoked afterwards, goes to war with the media. He’s being kiddingly compared to cartoon character Fred Flintstone. He even has a hand in dragging a reporter from a newspaper that had been critical of the team out of the Leafs’ dressing room after one ugly loss. The Leafs miss the playoffs again, and it’s goodbye Nykoluk.
“Ballard fooled a lot of people, especially people in the press,” Nykoluk recalled during an interview. “He said to me, ‘Mike, I’m a showman.’ He’d do things just to confound people, but he really wanted to win.
“I found things out after I’d gone that I’ve never talked about to anybody, and I don’t want to talk about, but I know now that things happened that were blamed on Harold that weren’t his doing.”
Ballard was in and out of hospital – prison, too, on a fraud rap – during the 1980s and he died in 1990.
“I went to see Harold in the hospital and he said, ‘Mike, I’m sorry it didn’t turn out the way you wanted.’ I said, ‘Just answer me one question, Harold: why did you turn me down on some of the players I wanted?’
“He stood up in the bed and said, ‘Mike, I’d never have turned you down on a player.’ So people were not, to me, doing the right thing for the boss. That’s what I always felt. I liked Harold Ballard. I really did.”
To whom was Nykoluk referring?
Asked which NHL team was his favourite today, he replied it was Pittsburgh.
“I like the idea that a team will suffer for a few years to get good young talent,” he said. “That’s the way it should be.”
He sees the present-day Leafs as “going through a transition.”
“They need to get a young superstar player,” he said.
Meanwhile, GM John Ferguson Jr. and head coach Paul Maurice must be given time, he said.
“The GM is young and I don’t know the coach too well but I always believe you give them a chance to see what they can do,” Nykoluk said, adding some advice: “I don’t like the idea of trying to get guys near the end of the season, older players other teams are trying to get rid of, with the hope they’re going to turn around your team. I don’t buy that.”
Before getting into coaching, Toronto-born Nykoluk was a top playmaker in the AHL. He got into 32 games with the Leafs in 1956-57 and scored three NHL goals. In the AHL, he helped his teams win the Calder Cup, and he was league MVP in 1966-67. His No. 8 was retired by the Hershey Bears, with whom he spent 14 years, and it hangs in the team’s Pennsylvania arena. He remains third on the all-time AHL assists list with 686.
Mayer, 76, originally from Ottawa and now a resident of Rhode Island, was five-foot-six and 128 pounds when he turned pro. He was so small that teammates called him “Needle” but agility and quickness made him a standout. He, too, spent most of his hockey career in the AHL and celebrated Calder Cup triumphs. Five times in a six-year span, beginning in 1950-51 at the age of 20, Mayer posted the lowest goals-against average in the league. He got into nine NHL games with the Leafs over the years.
“I was the second goaltender wearing a mask early in my pro career,” he recalled. “I got hurt one night, broke my jaw, and Jacques Plante sent me one of his masks.”
NHL teams carried only one goalie, meaning there were only six big-league goaltending jobs in those days. Mayer’s best contract paid him $5,000 a season. He was a building inspector for the state of Rhode Island for many years until settling into retirement 10 years ago.
Gamble, from Moncton, N.B., lives in Leroy, N.Y., near Rochester where he played for many years. He’s 78. He worked as a manufacturer’s rep after quitting hockey. He just retired totally about a year ago.
“I know every back road in western New York,” he said with a grin.
Gamble skated alongside Rocket Richard when the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1953. The players got tie pins and he had his made into a ring.
Gamble would play most of his career in the AHL winning scoring titles, MVP awards and Calder Cups. He got into a handful of games with the Leafs in the Sixties. He ranks fourth all-time in AHL history with 468 goals.
Like Nykoluk, he never wore a helmet. To his recollection, his best annual salary in hockey was $15,000 or $16,000. He had his share of contract disputes.
“A lot of guys got blackballed” if they argued with management, he says.
Don Cherry, who spent most of his playing career in the AHL and who was guest speaker for the all-star game luncheon, singled Gamble out when he got to the mic.
“Hey, Dick, remember us drinking in the bars? Who would have thought we’d be here,” said Cherry.
Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Johnny Bower, 82, handed each new AHL Hall of Fame member a small trophy when he was introduced. Bower played against Nykoluk, Gamble and Mayer, and Cook coached Bower in Cleveland.
Cook, a native of Kingston, Ont., coached AHL teams to seven league titles. His career in hockey earned him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He died in 1988. His son, Norm Cook, accepted the award.
Cherry said he “spent 2,000 years in the AHL.”
“I owe everything to the AHL,” the Hockey Night In Canada icon said before spinning his dinner-circuit tales and jokes. He also presented a three-minute video of Bobby Orr action highlights accompanied by a mushy Carly Simon song.