Mike Nykoluk, the assistant coach of the Rangers, chewed vigorously on a large, unlit cigar as he studied an instant replay of a sliding save made by Islander Goaltender Chico Resch on a shot by Pat Hickey. Nykoluk muttered to himself, then jotted a reminder on a small sheet of paper: "Can't go for deke."
From his habitual perch high above the action, Nykoluk observes the fine and not-so-fine points of play on the ice as well as on a TV screen, then between periods he hustles down to the dressing room to share his findings with Coach Fred Shero and the Ranger players. "Many times, what I see from upstairs will determine our strategy for the next period," says Nykoluk.
A genial, paunchy man of 44 whom Shero introduces as "the coach of the Rangers." Nykoluk has been a big factor in their success this season. "Fred is great behind the bench," says Defenseman Dave Maloney, "but Mike is always busy behind the scenes." Indeed, Nykoluk not only reports games from on high, but he also runs practices, names starting lineups, presents between-period chalk-talks ("I don't teach anything new, it's just reviewing strategy"), plays Dear Abby for those Rangers troubled by personal problems and serves as a link between the players and the aloof Shero.
Nykoluk's suggestions to Shero are usually adopted posthaste. "Fred and I think alike," he says. "Together we go over exactly what we plan to do." Nykoluk then implements the game plans, while Shero stands aside.
May 13, 1979
"Fred allows Mike to do most of the coaching," says Center Phil Esposito. "Mike's an intelligent hockey man but, more important, he knows how to handle players as people." Adds the 22-year-old Maloney, "You've got to give Shero credit for realizing that he hasn't got the personality to deal with his personnel on an individual level. Mike can relate to us."
Because of Shero's shortcomings as a communicator, the Rangers stubbornly refused to hire him as head coach during the 1960s even though he regularly coached their top minor league farm teams to championships. Tired of waiting for a call from New York, in 1971 Shero accepted an offer to coach the Philadelphia Flyers. Ever the innovator, Shero persuaded the Flyers to hire Nykoluk as the NHL's first full-time assistant following the 1971-72 season.
"Fred and I knew each other during the 1950s when we played for the old Winnipeg Warriors," says Nykoluk. "We met again when he was coaching Buffalo and I was playing for Hershey in the American Hockey League." Nykoluk, a center noted for his playmaking and defensive skills, was a minor legend in Hershey by the time he retired in 1972 after 14 seasons with the Bears. The team then retired his No. 8.
The Shero-Nykoluk tandem coached Philadelphia to four straight first-place divisional finishes and two Stanley Cups. In 1977, the Flyer management, unhappy about the team's quick exit from the playoffs, reassigned Nykoluk to the post of Director of Player Development and sent him off to work with the young Maine Mariners.
"They called it a promotion," Nykoluk grunts, "but it was just a fancy title." When Shero skipped out on his Philadelphia contract last summer and signed with the Rangers, Nykoluk happily rejoined his mentor as assistant coach.
But is he really "assisting"? "Fred does call me coach, probably because I'm closer to the players," says Nykoluk, who may well become the head coach next season if Shero decides to concentrate full-time on his general manager's duties. "But I'm not looking forward to that now," Nykoluk says. The biggest difference between Shero and Nykoluk, the assistant jokes, is that Shero knows players by their last names, Nykoluk by their first names.
"Mike wants us to express our opinions, even if they aren't popular," says Esposito, who has never been known to suppress one. "Last year you could make suggestions, but nobody listened. Now if you say practice is boring, Mike takes action." Easygoing and approachable, Nykoluk has also named six "captains." including Esposito, with whom he meets regularly. "It's an informal way of keeping tabs on everybody." Nykoluk says. "We keep people talking to find out what, if anything, bothers them." This open-door policy has helped generate a loose, one-for-all atmosphere on the Rangers, a climate notoriously absent in the past.
Is it Shero Mystique or Nykoluk Technique that brought the Rangers so far this season? Are those 30-second skating shifts the Rangers employed against the Islanders a Shero strategy or a Nykoluk ploy?
"We work together," Nykoluk says firmly. "We think alike. Of course, Fred is simply a hockey genius. After the first period of our opening playoff game in Philadelphia, I was wondering how we could hang on to our lead. But Fred said, 'Think about bringing up Bobby Sheehan. We're going to need more speed.' Here I am worrying about that night's game, that next 20 minutes, and he's already seeing the overall picture, finding new ways to make it all click."
With Shero plotting and analyzing future Ranger moves, Nykoluk's current chores are streamlined. All he has to do is coach and communicate.