Mike Nykoluk was an up-and-coming 21-year-old forward when he played for the Winnipeg Warriors of the old WHL in 1955-56, a team loaded with former NHLers, including goaltender Ed Chadwick, defenceman Bill Juzda, and forwards Bill Mosienko and Paul Masnick. Also manning the Warrior blueline that year was a former New York Ranger, 30-year-old Fred Shero, who was just about to launch a coaching career that would take him to Philadelphia in the early 1970s.
It was there, of course, that Shero would contriveto guide the Flyers to successive Stanley Cup championships, in 1974 and ’75. Nykoluk was there for those, too, you might remember: following his brief NHL career (32 games with the ’56-57 Toronto Maple Leafs) and a longer cruise (16 seasons) in the AHL, Shero had hired him as an assistant coach in June of 1972.
Mike Nykoluk, I’m sorry to say, died last week at the age of 87. In 1978, he followed Shero when he went to New York to coach the Rangers. Mostly he was referred to (again) as an assistant, though Shero preferred to call him a co-coach. Eventually, between 1981 and 1984, Nykoluk got his chance to be the boss, seeing service through parts of four seasons as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Something he was not: the NHL’s first assistant coach.
That’s a claim that has been often repeated over the years, with confidence. Eric Duhatschek, for instance, in a 2017 Globe and Mail feature about the evolution of the role of coaches in the NHL declared that Shero had “hired the first official full-time assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk, in 1972.” History doesn’t agree.
Reminders of Nykoluk’s (supposed) trailblazering resurfaced last week, too, so maybe time for some clarifying. For all his achievements through the years, Nykoluk wasn’t even close to being the NHL’s original assistant coach.
Jeff Marek, Sportsnet’s esteemed hockey broadcaster, keeps a careful eye on hockey’s history, and he was attentive in seeing the record corrected …
… up to a point.
Because while Al McNeil and Doug Harvey did indeed precede Nykoluk as NHL assistants, others went before. Many others. Onward into the obscurity.
The first? That distinction would seem to belong to Dick Carroll, in Toronto, all the way back in the league’s inaugural season, 1917-18. There’s some cloudiness to this, so bear with me, if you will.
To start with, some straightening out of terminology is in order: in those early decades of pro hockey, teams tended to have one man who both coached and took care of player personnel, and he was usually called (in the baseball way) the manager. This was true, for example, in the mid-1920s, with icons like Art Ross in Boston, Lester Patrick of the New York Rangers, and Jack Adams in Detroit.
Toronto’s manager for the 1917-18 season was Charlie Querrie, who happened to be the man who ran Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, home to the new team. Querrie was appointed in early December of ’17, two weeks before the NHL’s opening night. Dick Carroll’s appointment as Querrie’s aide was announced at the same time.
So there it is: Dick Carroll was the NHL’s first assistant coach.
If that’s clear enough, here’s some cloud to obscure things: as the modern-day Maple Leafs recount it, Carroll was head coach in 1917, steering the team through its first 40 games and onward through to 1919. Querrie’s 1917 service is recognized in the team’s list of GMs; as a coach, he’s recognized for two later tours he served in the ’20s, by which time the team had turned into the St. Patricks.
Wrong, I’d say, in my nitpicking way, with a kicker to the effect that, by failing to acknowledge the way things used to be, the Leafs have (not for the first time) muddled their own history.
Further fogging things is the fact through the course of the 1917-18 season, Toronto’s bench was anything but settled.
Charlie Querrie had taken the job in Toronto on the understanding that he’d be free to operate without the interference of Eddy Livingstone, the NHA owner, Toronto hockey eminence, persona non grata — it was to ostracize and spite Livingstone that the NHL was formed in the first place in November of 1917. Livingstone’s ongoing meddling seems to have prompted Querrie’s resignation at the end of December, after Toronto had played just three NHL games, leaving Dick Carroll in charge: the assistant coach was now the coach.
Unless Querrie didn’t quit.
Newspapers that had reported that Querrie was finished were soon correcting the record to say that he was still on the job, or would be again as soon as the team’s owners at the Montreal Arena Company guaranteed him that Livingstone would really, truly, be kept away from the team. Querrie also seems to have sought to download some of the coaching he was doing to Carroll.
This all seems to have taken some negotiating, leaving Carroll in charge. Querrie did return to the fold, but as of January of 1918, Carroll does seem to have assumed day-to-day — and game-to-game — control of the team, with Querrie moving more into the realm of — well, yes, what we would today recognize as GMing.
That April, when Toronto won the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era, accounts of the final series only confirm this division of labours: Carroll was coach, Querrie was manager. Glory to them both, along with a footnote or two: Querrie’s NHL’s coaching record should include those first three games that he coached, the very ones that constitute Carroll’s entire tenure as the league’s original assistant coach.
Next in the NHL’s long line of assistant coaches? A non-definitive listing might look to Boston.
Sprague Cleghorn was 37 in 1927, playing out the last year of his long, distinguished, and very brutal career with the Boston Bruins. He was team captain again that year, as he had been previously, and he had a new role, too, as manager Art Ross’s (playing) assistant. Cleghorn was running practices and stood in as interim coach for several games in early 1928 when Ross was home with a stomach ailment. So he seems to have been second among assistant coaches.
Born in Copenhagen, Emil Iverson went from head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team in the 1920s to being hired as the NHL’s first full-time physical director when Major Frederic McLaughlin brought him on with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1930. Iverson was appointed head coach after that (the league’s first European-born pilot), only to be replaced in 1933 by Tommy Gorman … whom Iverson continued to serve as assistant.
Gorman departed in 1934, having won the Stanley Cup. When Clem Loughlin was named his successor, the newly retired Chicago defenceman Helge Bostrum signed on as his assistant.
More and more teams in the ’30s were hiring deputies, a review of newspaper archives shows, some of them who were still playing, some others fresh off hanging up their active careers. To wit:
Bill Cook aided Lester Patrick with the New York Rangers in 1936-37, with Frank Boucher stepping in to take up the same role the following season, ’37-38.
Larry Aurie served as a playing assistant to Jack Adams with the Detroit Red Wings in 1938-39.
Paul Thompson was Chicago coach Bill Stewart’s playing assistant that same season.
When the Montreal Canadiens shifted coaches in the latter stages of that season, swapping in club secretary Jules Dugal to replace Cecil Hart, Babe Siebert was named captain and playing assistant.
In Chicago in 1938, Carl Voss was hired to assist Paul Thompson, now the coach of the Black Hawks. And in 1941, Helge Bostrum resurfaced as an assistant to Thompson.
The Bruins had a run of distinguished assistants through the ’40s and ‘50s, with Dit Clapper, Jack Crawford, and Milt Schmidt all appointed to the role at one point or another.
In 1958-59, Bert Olmstead served as a playing assistant to Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach. King Clancy, too, served Imlach and the Leafs the same role in Toronto in the ’60s, as well as working as assistant GM.
This is, again, no official register, but it does make clear that at least 17 men served as assistant coaches in the NHL before Mike Nykoluk started in Philadelphia in 1972.
I don’t know exactly how the Nykoluk glitch get into regular rotation, but it seems it started at the source. Discussing the hiring that June, 50 years ago, Flyers GM Keith Allen is quoted in several newspaper reports as confirming Nykoluk as a pioneer, with Fred Shero weighing in on the breakthrough, too. Why not add an assistant? “Football and baseball have assistant coaches,” Shero opined, “and those sports are not as physical or mentally demanding as hockey.”
The error was enshrined early on in the local literature. The Flyers’ 1975-76 yearbook, for instance, casually mentions it.
In Full Spectrum, a comprehensive history of the team from 1996, Jay Greenberg scales it back a bit: Nykoluk is identified there “one of the NHL’s first assistant coaches.”
Keith Allen is quoted as crediting Flyer owner Ed Snider for the hire. “Eddie came from football, where they had assistant coaches, and thought Freddie could use some help,” Allen recalled. “Mike had never been fast enough to play in the NHL, but he was a smart player and I had a lot of respect for him.”