Toronto native Mike Nykoluk was a member of the inaugural Rochester Americans hockey club in 1956-57 and suited up in 32 National Hockey League games for the Toronto Maple Leafs that same season. He was signed to play in Toronto the next season but was traded to Hershey because the Leafs wanted Willie Marshall, who played his only two NHL games, and Nykoluk spent the next 14 seasons with the Bears.
“Back then there were just six NHL teams and players had no say in anything, so I was in Hershey from 1958 to 1972 and during that the time the Bears missed the playoffs just one time, in 1959-60, because we always had good players and won the Calder Cup in 1959 and 1969,” Nykolumk said. “What really made us good was when Frank Mathers, Willie Marshall, Bob Solinger, Gil Mayer, Jack Price and Les Duff came to the Bears when the Pittsburgh team left the league in the mid-50s.”
Nykoluk’s Hershey records over 14 seasons of 972 games played, 636 assists and 972 points made him an obvious choice for induction into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame in 2007 and the initial Hershey Bears Hall of Fame in 2012, plus his number 8 was retired. Nykoluk went on to become the first assistant coach in the National Hockey League, helping the Philadelphia Flyers to Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975.
He spent three years as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers and closed out his career as the head coach of his home town Toronto Maple Leafs for three years.
“Frank talked me into playing one more year than I wanted to, so when that season ended he called me in and said the Flyers wanted to meet with me,” Nykoluk said about how that situation started. “I had a tie to the Flyers’ coach Fred Shero, from our time in the Western Hockey League, so I met with the other management people and agreed to try it for a year. They brought some really good guys in and we did pretty good and made it into the playoffs.
“When Shero went to the Rangers, he asked me to go along and we had a terrific first year and ended up playing Montreal in the finals that we lost,” added Nykoluk. “A couple years later I got the head coaching job in Toronto, was there four years and then finally retired.”
Nykoluk never cracked the 20-goal mark in his career, but he recorded at least 50 assists in seven straight seasons (1963-70), leading the league twice. In 1966-67, he won the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player and was a Second Team AHL All-Star.
Nykoluk, who lives in Florida will turn 87 in December, remains third on the AHL’s all-time list with 686 assists, sixth with 881 points and fourth with 1,069 games played. He also ranks second with 62 career playoff assists and tied for fourth with 112 Calder Cup Playoff games played.
“I’d like to get back to Toronto to see my brother but don’t know if that can happen because of this stupid virus thing,” said Nykoluk. “If I did, I would stop in Hershey, because those are two things I really want to do.”