SOCHI, Russia - Halfway around the world on the eve of the biggest hockey tournament held every four years, Bob Nicholson is still his relaxed and affable self, unable to put up a front belied by the half-hug, half-handshake he puts on a reporter in the chill of an Olympic Park practice rink.
There are lots of big deals at the Olympics — from IOC suits to superstar athletes — but right there in the mix is Hockey Canada’s unassuming CEO Nicholson.
Blessed with an easy and engaging smile, Nicholson talks in the vernacular of a hockey parent and has a comfortable countenance. Sort of comes across like the friendly neighbour who without being asked cuts your grass when you’re on vacation and drops off a humble present the day your daughter or son graduates.
But don’t be fooled. Nicholson may not self-promote or hide behind a steely veneer but he’s a passionate and driven man counted among the world’s most successful hockey executives. The 60-year-old took on his current title in 1998 but he’s overseen all of Canada’s national hockey programs since 1990, winning 66 medals in international competition, 41 of which were gold including five Olympic gold medals.
A Providence College graduate, he played for Lou Lamoriello there and counted Brian Burke and Ron Wilson as teammates, Nicholson says he still gets a little nervous right about now and like most Canadians can’t wait for the action to get started.
"I kind of become a fan at this point. A nervous fan," he laughs. "From here on out this becomes Kevin Dineen’s show on the womens’ side and Mike Babcock’s on the mens. Hopefully you see very little of me."
Canada’s first foray into Olympic hockey with NHL players participating was 1998 and Nicholson says each time since his organization has challenged itself to get better.
"Every Olympic journey is different. My very first one was in Nagano in 1998 and now we’re here in Russia. I’ve been to Russia many times but now we’re here for the Olympics and this is very special," said Nicholson. "We’ve gotten very good at being prepared. But so has every other country. We have to look for whatever edge we can provide our players and coaches. It’s an ever evolving process for us. But our staff does an incredible job. They never stop working."
Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut has been popping off for some time to anyone who will listen about Canada no longer being an Olympic nation satisfied with just competing. Results, winning results, must be achieved. For Nicholson, that’s always been his way of life. It’s always been gold or nothing for Canadian hockey at every level during Nicholson’s time at the top.
"When I started and the COC talked about personal bests and just ‘going over there to enjoy it,’ and I had a real problem buying in to that," said Nicholson, who along with his wife Lorna has raised two daughters and a son. "Hearing what they say now, it’s the only way to look at it. All of the Canadian athletes have prepared so hard. Hey, shoot for that medal. For some it might be a bit of a stretch but if you have a gold medal performance, you’ll end up where you should be."
The best leaders are people that seek out the elite in their chosen field and then put them in positions to succeed before getting out of the way to let them do their thing. Rather than pretend to be at the cutting edge of the who, what and where of hockey at any given moment, Nicholson has instituted a structure where Hockey Canada recruits the best minds of the day and lets them run their program within the umbrella of the national organization.
In Nagano it was Bobby Clarke and his peer group, then Wayne Gretzky, and now Steve Yzerman and his posse. Nicholson says it’s difficult but rewarding process.
"People don’t understand the work they put in. We’re so fortunate to have guys like Steve Yzerman, Kevin Lowe, Ken Holland, Peter Chiarelli and Doug Armstrong," said Nicholson. "They’re just on it. They watch so many games and do so much work to prepare. But you know what, adding the Olympic experience to their portfolio, it just makes them better. Just like players that get to play here and have to go to another level, our management group are in a room with their peers and raising their level and honing abilities."
The Olympic ride including NHL player participation appears to be nearing an end. The NHL wants to control its product and views holding a World Cup every two years as a better vehicle for their needs and wishes.
"Not even there. We’ve got a couple weeks to focus on this," said Nicholson, when asked if he’s begun formulating a play for life after NHLers.
Canadians should be comforted, however, as long as Nicholson is in charge. He may not have the best materials to build our next team, but he will have the best architect in the business to draw up the blueprint. Himself.