The Flyers Alumni Association is saddened to learn of the passing of Mike Nykoluk at age 87. He passed away on Jan. 31, 2022.
Hired by Fred Shero and the Philadelphia Flyers in 1972 to become the National Hockey League’s first full-time assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk blazed a trail for generations of assistant coaches who followed him into the league. He understood his role was support the duties of the head coach and also to communicate on a day-to-day basis with players in more of a one-on-one manner.
While Shero was universally respected and trusted by his players, he tended to be somewhat aloof in his day-to-day dealings. Shero focused on game preparation, strategy and in-game personnel management. Nykoluk provided feedback when asked but also had closer day-in and day-out interactions.
“Mike was a good man and a good coach,” recalls Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman Joe Watson. “Always had a cigar. Liked to laugh but he took winning seriously. Encouraging to the players. Mike enjoyed the horse races and usually had the newspaper or the racing form. Down to earth guy. Freddie thought the game on a very high level. Together, they communicated things in a straightforward way. Mike helped us along and he was a big help to Freddie.”
In loving memory of Mike Nykoluk… RIP coach. pic.twitter.com/eKop3AkWFw
— Flyers Alumni (@FlyersAlumni) February 1, 2022
Nykoluk was Shero’s assistant on the Stanley Cup winning 1973-74 team. After Shero got mugged by an unknown assailant — no perpetrator was ever identified or arrested — following Game 3 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, Nykoluk filled in as head coach for one game as the Flyers closed out a series sweep of the Atlanta Flames. The next year, Nykoluk was joined as an assistant coach by recently retired defenseman Barry Ashbee, after Ashbee suffered a career-ending eye injury in the 1974 Stanley Cup semifinals.
Later, when Shero departed the Flyers to become the New York Rangers head coach and general manager, Nykoluk accompanied the Hockey Hall of Fame coach to New York. The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1979 before losing to the Montreal Canadiens.
Nykoluk finally got a head coaching opportunity in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He spent three seasons behind the Maple Leafs’ bench (1981-82 through 1983-84), working under crusty and eccentric owner Harold Ballard.
Back during his playing days, Nykoluk played in 32 NHL games for the Maple Leafs during the 1956-57 season. Later, the stocky center became an iconic American Hockey League fixture for the Hershey Bears (1958-59 season through his retirement as an active player at the end of the 1971-72 campaign). Nicknamed “the Big Bear”, Nykoluk was beloved in Hershey. The Bears won two Calder Cup championships during his playing tenure. The playmaking forward recorded at least 50 assists in seven straight seasons, leading the league twice. Nykoluk is the Hershey franchise’s all-time leader in games played (972), assists (636) and points (808), and his number 8 has been retired by the team. He was inducted into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame in 2007.