When Bob Nicholson woke up Friday morning, he turned to the business section of the newspaper and noticed a good omen hours before announcing his resignation as Hockey Canada president and CEO.
“I saw that gold had just gone up, so I thought it was the right time to make this announcement,” Nicholson joked.
Nicholson’s tenure will be remembered for 44 gold medals in men’s, women’s and sledge hockey at various levels in the past 15-plus years. He knows his legacy will revolve around the strength of Hockey Canada, but he really wants to be remembered for his impact on people.
“I want it to be about kids, kids playing the game,” Nicholson said. “If we have a lot of kids playing the game, we’re going to win gold medals.”
Nicholson, 60, has a chance to add a couple more before leaving June 1, but after that the job will fall to someone else. Jim Hornell, chairman of Hockey Canada’s board of directors, said he’ll put together a “blue-ribbon selection committee comprised of many stakeholders in the game to identify and appoint a new president and CEO.”
Whether Nicholson has any input on that decision is up to Hornell, Nicholson said. In the meantime, he’ll take some time to relax.
“I’m going to go out to Penticton, I’ve got a spot in Mexico, I’m going to go sit up there in a hammock and read a book and just enjoy life for a bit,” said Nicholson, who also plans to travel to Minsk, Belarus, in May for the men’s world championship.
Nicholson said he started to consider resigning just after the Sochi Olympics, when Canada won men’s and women’s gold yet again.
“I have known Bob since I was 15 and he has done so much for my career and for hockey in Canada,” said Hayley Wickenheiser, who helped lead the women’s team to gold. “No one is more passionate about winning and developing hockey than Bob. He has been a big supporter of women’s hockey and is a big reason behind our success.”
Hornell took time in his remarks at Friday’s news conference to point out that Nicholson made major personal sacrifices for Hockey Canada, that the Penticton, B.C., native “has put hockey ahead of so many people and groups competing for his attention.”
The only time Nicholson got emotional during Friday’s remarks was when he talked about sister Lois, wife Lorna and their kids, Mandi, Marijean and Grant.
“Lorna, you’ve done an unbelievable job,” he said, choking up.
In saying goodbye to an organization he has been a part of since 1990, when it was the Canadian Hockey Association, Nicholson shared stories about his past and hopes for the future. One came from a long conversation with Wayne Gretzky.
“We were having a laugh and he says, ‘Bob, I remember when you started and we’d go out for dinner and I wanted to order dessert and you said, ‘Hey Wayne, we can’t afford that.’ And I’d sign a jersey and we’d get dinner paid for,“’ Nicholson recalled. “We’ve come a long ways.”
Chief operating officer Scott Smith, who has been mentioned as a replacement for Nicholson, said the organization had 23 employees when Nicholson started and just under 120 now. Nicholson said he had to get introduced to some of the staff recently because the group had grown so big.
Managing and building that will be someone else’s job. As for what Nicholson does next, he said he doesn’t quite know yet.
“I’m going to see if I can get my old job back in Penticton on the golf range picking up golf balls for the summer,” he joked. “But seriously I’m going to stay here till June 1 and I’m going to take some time. I’ve been at this, I don’t know how to go half-speed and I’m going to enjoy some time in Penticton, see my mom, see my kids. I’m sure I’m going to do something, but there’s certainly nothing in the immediate future.”
Nicholson will stay on as vice-president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, where he can represent Canada’s interests on that world stage. At some point an NHL team could come calling, but he brushed that off for now as speculation.
Asked what advice he’d give to his successor, Nicholson again brought it back to the people, not the medals.
“Care about the game, make sure it’s safe, make sure that you’re in Flin Flon and all the small (towns with) minor hockey across the country,” he said. “Talk about sledge hockey, talk about women’s hockey. The other stuff will come.”
That includes more gold medals. Under Nicholson, Canada’s men snapped a 50-year Olympic drought at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, won on home soil in Vancouver in 2010 and again in Sochi in February.
But the career highlight he pointed to was something different.
“Maybe in Torino, going and watching our sledge team win for the very first time,” Nicholson said. “Seeing the commitment that they had to do to win that gold medal was special. But you can never take away Salt Lake City, Vancouver — they’re all 1As.”
— With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary