By Derek Jory for Hockey Canada
Bob Nicholson isn’t too sure where he’d be without hockey. A quick glance at his resume and it’s easy to understand why.
The 63-year-old Penticton, B.C., native played all of his junior hockey in British Columbia, working his way up the ranks before playing NCAA hockey at Providence College, lining up alongside Brian Burke and Ron Wilson.
With his playing days behind him, Nicholson didn’t lose his passion for hockey, taking on the role of technical director with the B.C. Amateur Hockey Association in 1979.
That was 37 years ago.
In that time Nicholson, now CEO and vice-chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group, served as president and CEO of Hockey Canada from 1998 to 2014, overseeing the nation’s gold-medal performances at seven Olympic Winter Games, 12 IIHF World Junior Championships, five IIHF World Championships, 10 IIHF World Women’s Championships, four IIHF World Women’s U18 Championships, three IIHF World U18 Championships, two IPC Sledge Hockey World Championships, and one Paralympic Winter Games.
If the title of Mr. Hockey wasn’t already taken, it would belong to Nicholson.
“I’m not sure what I would have been up to,” laughed Nicholson. “It would have been something around people, I enjoy interaction with people and trying to build a team, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice.”
Nicholson, part of the Class of 2016 of the Order of Hockey in Canada – an honour he helped create in 2012 – was president of Hockey Canada for 16 glorious years. When he began in 1998, Hockey Canada was a sports organization and he had visions of much more, it was to become a major business, one that invoked pride throughout our home and native land.
He did just that.
Looking back though, Nicholson’s main goal for Hockey Canada was always much simpler.
“I came in wanting to make sure that kids could play the game of hockey and make sure there were ways for kids to play. Even the day I left, it was still a goal that was never fully achieved, but we made major advancements on it. Canadians see Hockey Canada representing them at the Olympic Games and World Juniors, but the most important thing for the president of Hockey Canada is to make sure kids play the game of hockey and play it in a safe, fun environment.”
Asked how hockey has changed over the last 20 years, Nicholson praised the time and effort coaches are putting into their teams. The education provided has improved dedication, training techniques and nutritional habits for players. The skill level of both male and female players has increased more than he ever envisioned – and then some.
Nicholson pointed to the IIHF World Junior Championship, a Canadian holiday tradition, as both evidence to the improved skill of players and his most prized Hockey Canada accomplishment.
“When I started, it was a tournament. Now it’s the elite hockey championship in Canada, one that captures Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast.”
As for what he’s most proud of during his time with Hockey Canada, Nicholson didn’t hesitate in mentioning Canada’s men’s and women’s teams winning gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Tough to top winning double gold on home soil, right?
“That was special,” said Nicholson, “but the one that really sticks out in my mind was Torino and it wasn’t at the Olympic Games, it was at the Paralympic Games. Our sledge team was going for a gold medal and they’d never won a gold medal, the emotion around the players when they won was unbelievable.
“When we brought on sledge hockey, I promised the sledge players that we would treat them exactly the same as the men’s team, as long as they gave us the same commitment back. To see them win gold and put on those gold medal rings really was special because they’d gone through so many traumas already in their lives. For them to not only represent, but win for their country at that level was special.”
Just when Nicholson, still a vice-president with the International Ice Hockey Federation, thought he’d seen and done it all, he recently had the privilege of awarding Team Canada gold medals at the 2016 IIHF World Championship. Alongside Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, Nicholson placed gold around the necks of Canadians who grew up striving for hockey greatness, with access to the game in a safe, fun environment.
They have Nicholson to thank for that.