Remembering the Magic Man


That there, that's not me
I go where I please
I walk through walls, I float down the Liffee
I'm not here, this isn't happening
I'm not here, I'm not here

In a little while, I'll be gone
The moment's already passed, yeah it's gone
And I'm not here, this isn't happening
I'm not here, I'm not here

   -- Radiohead, "How To Disappear Completely"


And now, the final act of the Magic Men, Père et Fils : a simultaneous disappearing act! I suppose it's fair to say that Robert got disappeared - as they used to say in Argentina - when the Oilers chose to buy out the last year of his contract. Given the ignominious nature of his son's departure, it's not surprising that his dad Kent has chosen to cut ties with the Oilers as well after 15 years of continuous service as a scout, and before that, two stints as a player. Scott has done a terrific job assessing the scouting years, but it was as a player that Kent entertained hockey fans across Western Canada. Before he disappears completely from the scene let's take a look back at the player Kent Nilsson was.

In a weird way Kenta and I broke in on the exact same night: October 12, 1977. Kent was a 21-year-old rookie phenom playing his first WHA game with the Winnipeg Jets, while I was a 21-year-old "rookie" fan, attending my first Opening Night with my brand new season tickets. I had attended numerous individual games over the years, but this was the year I jumped to the "bigs" as a hockey fan and bought all the way in. I had quit smoking the previous winter, and rewarded myself by spending the money I saved from cutting out a pack a day on a lower bowl seat. (The commensurability held for many years as the price of ducats and smokes both skyrocketed ahead of inflation, although nowadays a live hockey habit is the much more expensive of the two addictions.)

Anyway, the first game was against the Oilers' geographic rivals, the Jets. Among such luminaries as Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Willy Lindstrom, and Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Kenta was just another Swede. Just another Swede kicking our butts; Winnipeg walked out of the Coliseum with a routine 7-3 stomping of the overmatched Oil. The Jets owned our asses back in the day. Memory's a little hazy but I seem to recall Kent lighting the lamp at least once in that game. I just remember wincing at the new Nilsson being introduced on the PA as the latest Oiler Killer.

Kent fit in nicely on a second scoring line, eating up the soft after opponents knocked themselves out trying to slow down the other Nilsson line, the one featuring Kent's namesake Ulf (no relation) as the mastermind centering two of the most dynamic wingers in the game, Hedberg and Bobby Hull. Kent Nilsson came in with a fair bit of hype after posting 28 and 30 goals in the SEL in his 19/20 year-old seasons, but what could you do against the Jets but throw your best defensive resources at that high-powered first line and take your chances with the other guys. Kenta came flying right out of the gate and actually led the WHA in scoring for a while, before eventually coming down to earth a little in the second half. He wound up eighth in the league - though fourth on his own team - with an impressive 107 points along with a career best (either league) +27. Did I mention he was eating up the softs? Kent was named winner of the Lou Kaplan Trophy for WHA rookie of year, joining a pretty prestigious list of guys who copped that singular honour. Better still, his Jets strolled to first place, then rolled to the Avco Cup losing but a single playoff game.

 

The next year saw a sea change in Winnipeg, as Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson flew to greener pastures in Manhatten after four fabulous seasons with the Jets, and a disillusioned Bobby Hull retired just days into the season. Sjoberg played just 9 games due to injury. In their place were a bunch of lunch-pail types from the disbanded Houston Aeros, including Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, and Scott Campbell. The high-flying days were over. With the disbandment of the first line, K. Nilsson was the new offensive leader, and did extremely well to repeat his 107-point rookie season, this time leading the Jets in scoring and moving up to fourth in the overall scoring race. The Jets finished third in the six-team league with their nose barely above the .500 waters, then got hot in the playoffs to win the seventh and last Avco Cup. 

Oh, the disappointment of that final series! The Oilers had acquired Wayne Gretzky early that season and rolled to first place. Gretzky succeeded Nilsson as the Lou Kaplan winner, and broke Kenta's rookie points record in the process, but the Swede had the last laugh as they say. After comfortably leading his team in regular season scoring, he was one of six guys sandwiched between 13-15 points in 10 playoff games as the whole team got hot at once. I have more recollections of Ruskowski and Preston forechecking the shit out of us than I do of any particular Nilsson magic, but the guy always had a knack for accomplishing quite a bit while appearing to do very little. There was a reason they called him the Magic Man.

And just like that, poof, he was gone from Winnipeg. The Jets joined the Oilers, Nordiques and WHAlers in the NHL, but at a substantial cost of players from their championship club. Under the bizarro rules of the merger, there was a sort of reverse expansion draft in which NHL teams "reclaimed" a bunch of players they had drafted years previously but whom the WHA actually pursued, signed and developed. The Jets chose poorly in protecting Lukowich and Campbell as their two permitted "priority" players, but lost their heart and soul (Ruskowski and Preston) to Chicago and their muse (Nilsson) to Atlanta.

Nilsson was to stay in the deep south but one year before the franchise was uprooted and transferred to Calgary. Hot off a team leading 93 points in his NHL debut season down in Georgia, Kent again found Western Canada to his liking and had a spectacular season in 1980-81, posting career highs across the board with 49-82-131 and finishing third in the NHL in scoring, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Marcel Dionne. Kent Nilsson had arrived as a superstar.

After an injury-plagued 1981-82, Nilsson went on to lead the Flames in scoring three more years. In all, Nilsson led the club in scoring for five of the six years he was a Flame. Over that span his 562 points ranked 8th in the NHL, and was a comfy 222 more than any other Flame. Yet among 82 skaters who dressed for the Flames over that span, Nilsson ranked a lowly 81st in +/-. The man was renowned for his lack of defensive intensity. Or as Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends put it:

Nilsson is one of the most technically superb players that Sweden has ever produced. He could awe crowds with his stickhandling and playmaking abilities and skated effortlessly. The slippery winger was as skilled a player as their ever was.

So with all that skill why isn't Kent Nilsson mentioned in the same breath as Gretzky or Orr? Simple. He was lazy. He'd even admit it on occasion. He rarely worked out and relied strictly on his god-given talent. But oh what a talent to watch!

The Magic Man's talent, and his curse, was his ability to disappear on the ice. He had this knack of materializing at a very dangerous spot along the space-time continuum, and when he was going good that was enough. He was a sublime passer, and a master of the "short breakaway". But when he wasn't scoring, he simply disappeared completely.

The Oilers made him disappear in the first Battle of Alberta, a five-game blowout in 1983 that saw the gushing Oil outscore their southern rival by an astonishing 35 goals to 13. Not a good series for any Flame.

The next year Nilsson managed to lead his team in scoring while posting a team-worst -24, a figure rendered all the more improbable given the fact that Kent himself scored nine shorthanded goals that season! He missed the playoffs with injury, but it didn't seem like the Flames missed him, as they had a much stronger run and pushed the Oilers to seven hard-fought games before ultimately bowing out in the Smythe Final.

In 1984-85, Nilsson did it again, leading the Flames in scoring with 99 points but having the worst (and practically the only) minus on the team. He scored just one point in a first-round upset by his old team, the Jets, and the writing was on the wall in Calgary. That summer Kent - a proud new dad of baby Robert - was shipped to the Minnesota North Stars for a modest exchange of draft picks. As luck would have it, the first of those picks became Joe Nieuwendyk, who after a great decade as a Flame was traded for a young Jarome Iginla. Thus Kent Nilsson remains just two degrees of separation from the current Flames team, a full quarter-century after he was traded! One doesn't often see trade lines as pure as that one - one star for another for another - but the Kent Nilsson trade worked out well for the Flames. Indeed, a tougher, harder-nosed group of Flames went on to oust the Oilers from the playoffs the year after Nilsson's departure, so it's awfully tough to argue that he was that sorely missed.

Kent bided his time in Minnesota, scoring a point per game over two incomplete seasons. He was a depth scorer in Minny, no longer the centre of the offence but still bloody dangerous. But for whatever reason, Lou Nanne soured on Nilsson and sold him to the Oilers for cash just before the trade deadline. Thus Nilsson became the only player of significance, and likely the only one at all, to play for all of Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton.

What a pickup for Glen Sather, who was a very active man at the '87 trade deadline. Besides adding elite talent up front in the form of the Magic Man, he added some more elite talent on the blue in the person of Reijo Ruotsalainen to the core known as the Big Five. The result was easily the most skilled Oiler team ever assembled.

In the process of several trades and personnel moves, Slats unloaded  a declining Mark Napier and rolled Nilsson right into Napier's old spot on the port side alongside Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson. Sather had always liked a veteran with speed and skill in that role; Nilsson's old teammate Willy Lindstrom had been there before Napier, but Nilsson was at another level. The upgrade in skill was immediately apparent, and while it took Kent a short while to get all three of legs, hands, and head performing at the level of the Oiler stars, soon enough the Oilers were unleashing a "second line" with devastating talent.

There was lots of talk about how Nilsson - and his perceived indifference to defence - would fit in on the Oilers. One popular theory was best expressed in an Elston cartoon entitled "How the Oilers plan to motivate Kent Nilsson." In it a gigantic Mark Messier grabs a terrified-looking Nilsson by the scruff of the neck and glowers: "Kent no play good. Make Mark ANGRY!"

Whatever, it was only for a little while, but what fun that line was to watch. Nilsson clicked at a point-per-game rate down the stretch, and carried on much the same through four playoff rounds. His biggest contribution to the Oilers is captured on the video up top, an assist on the goal that tied Game Seven of the Finals. Well worth the 15 seconds to watch that play (starts at the 0:29 mark) which was a three-way gem of rare lustre. The lion's share of the work was done by Anderson and Messier, but Nilsson's key contribution was the perfectly timed onside burst over the blue line into space, taking Anderson's pass and, rather than shooting from decent position, finding the danger man Messier breaking clear on the other side and hitting him perfectly with a one-touch pass for the backhand tap-in.

Kent Nilsson achieved his ultimate dream that night, receiving the Stanley Cup. I remember being surprised by the depth of his emotion, as the guy was a pool of tears quite some time after the game. 

And again, the Magic Man disappeared. Having won the Stanley Cup, his time in North America was essentially done, and he returned to Europe after ten years on this side of the pond. The next season he followed a lead from former Oiler Ron Chipperfield to play for Bolzano in the Italian League. Not saying Nilsson was out of his league, but check out his stats: 43 GP, 74-86-160!   

Nilsson found himself back with Djurgardens in the SEL the following season, and ultimately became something of a hockey nomad. Before he was done he had played in the Swiss, Austrian, Norwegian, and Spanish Leagues as well. (I didn't even know there was a Spanish League.) He also attempted one last fling in the NHL, rejoining the Oilers on a 6-game lark in the otherwise-hopelessly-lost 1994-95 season.  I happened to catch one of Kent's games live so I watched him quite a bit: suffice to say the brain was willing but the flesh weak. Not only had the talent eroded over the intervening eight years, the talented linemates were also nowhere to be seen. The experiment ended quickly, and badly, but Nilsson did manage to score his last NHL goal, his 900th regular season point in North America. Not bad for what was essentially a ten-year career. Thanks for putting on a show, Kenta.

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