Scotty Nichol, writer Kevin Oklobzija to enter Amerks Hall of Fam

by Leo Roth, Democrat and Chronicle, March 2, 2017

During his 19 seasons as a professional hockey player, Scott Nichol won a lot of face-offs, scored a lot of points and racked up a lot of penalty minutes.

A lot of penalty minutes.

At 5 feet 8 inches, 160 pounds, Nichol was fast enough to skate through a car wash and not get wet. He used that speed at center to fly all over the ice, forcing turnovers, agitating opponents and yes, taking a “bad’’ penalty from time to time for being too aggressive.

In six seasons with the Rochester Americans before embarking on a 12-year NHL career, Nichol appeared in 326 games, scoring 80 goals and 173 points while accumulating 813 penalty minutes, which rank seventh in club history.

Former Democrat and Chronicle sports writer Kevin Oklobzija, who was on the Amerks beat 31 years (which ranks first), recalled a game when Nichol picked up two bad penalties in a row. The infractions cost his team a goal and ultimately the game, drawing the ire of coach Brian McCutcheon.

Afterwards, Oklobzija asked Nichol, “What happened out there?’’

“Scotty goes, ‘I don’t know what happened, it was like an out-of-body experience,’ ’’ Kevin recalled.

For a writer in search of an angle, talk about a perfect setup.

“I just followed up with the line, ‘He’ll likely have an out-of-uniform experience the next game,’ ‘’ Kevin said. “And he did. Brian sat him.’’

Friday, Nichol and Oklobzija will share what can only be described as an out-of-this-world experience when they become the newest members of the Amerks Hall of Fame during pregame ceremonies at Blue Cross Arena.

Their additions will make 61 honorees for 61 seasons and the committee could not have chosen two more deserving pros and even better people.

“It’s a huge honor. Rochester really did make me who I am with the fans, the support from coaches, trainers and my teammates,’’ said Nichol, 42, a native of Alberta who like numerous Amerks made Rochester his permanent home — he lives in Victor with his wife, Christie, and children, Hayden, 13, Foster, 12, and Sophia, 10.

“I so appreciate that Buffalo (the parent Sabres) took a flier on an 11th-round draft pick who is 5-foot nothing and 160 pounds. I called (development head) Don Luce and (assistant coach) Terry Martin the other day just to thank them for sticking with me.’’

Nichol will become the sixth member of the Amerks last Calder Cup championship team of 1996 to be enshrined (Craig Charron, Dane Jackson, Doug Houda, Dan Frawley, Scott Metcalfe). Yes, it’s been that long since champagne flowed at Exchange and Broad.

Meanwhile, Oklobzija, 56, joins Hans Tanner as the only hockey beat writers so honored — the two covered 87 percent of Amerks’ history. For longevity, Kevin, ever humble, was the Gordie Howe of AHL writers.

“I didn’t skate for them, I didn’t sign anybody as a GM, I didn’t sharpen anybody’s skates, I was doing my job for another team,’’ said Kevin, who will have his mom, Luella, and brother, Blair, in attendance all the way from his native Minnesota. “Obviously, though, it is very nice to be recognized.’’

A two-time captain, it was easy to recognize Nichol as he buzzed up and down the ice making things happen.

Scott Nichol, left, shown here with San Jose Sharks, was always in the action. He spent seven years in the minors, six in Rochester, where he learned "how to be a pro'' he said. He'll be inducted into the Amerks Hall of Fame Friday, March 3. 

During Rochester’s inspired run to the ’96 championship as a third-place team in the AHL's regular season under coach John Tortorella, Nichol tallied 13 points in 19 playoff games. In the finals against Portland, his breakaway overtime goal won Game 5 and Rochester would go on to win the series in seven games.

To this day, then Portland coach Barry Trotz, now with the Washington Capitals who Nichol played for in Nashville, tells him: “You owe me a Calder Cup ring.’’

Nichol’s wingers with the Amerks were snarling veterans Frawley and Metcalfe, the linemates now reunited in the Hall of Fame.

“That’s pretty cool,’’ Nichol said. “We were just a meat-and-potatoes line. Being a young kid and just figuring out what pro hockey was about with Frawls and Metter showing me the ropes on how to compete and how to prepare was a joy. I carried that into my career and later on I was helping the younger guys.’’

Passing it on is a hockey code: Good guys helping good guys.

Metcalfe called Nichol the “consummate pro’’ whose speed and ferocity made his teammates just glad he was on their side.

“He was one of the guys we had to calm down, he was ready to club a baby seal before every game,’’ Metcalfe said. “Scott had the heart of a lion. It also helped that Frawls and I were out their glaring at guys so he could do what he wanted.’’

After six seasons in Rochester that included two more appearances in the finals to go with knee and shoulder surgeries and only five call-up games with Buffalo, Nichol, then 25, knew the time had come for a change of scenery or his NHL dream would be over.

After a year playing in the IHL with the Detroit Vipers, his hometown Calgary Flames signed him to a two-year contract after he turned the rink upside down with his energy in training camp.

He would carve a niche in the NHL as a key role player who could change the pace of a game with his speed and feistiness while winning an uncanny 60 percent of his face-offs.

“I’d never change my seven years in the minors. I appreciated every day I played in the NHL because of it,’’ Nichol said. “I worked so hard and it’s so hard to stay in the NHL and have a career, but I was ready.’’

Nichol appeared in 662 regular-season NHL games for the Sabres, Flames, Blackhawks, Predators, Sharks and Blues. He scored 127 points, added another 916 PIM and skated on six Stanley Cup playoff teams over his last eight seasons, twice making the conference finals with San Jose. He got to play with some of hockey's greatest, from Jarome Iginla to Paul Kariya to Joe Thornton to Rob Blake.

All because he refused to give up on himself.

Former Amerk center Scott Nichol, shown here with Nashville Predators, cared out a fine 12-year NHL career because of his tenacity and expert faceoff skills. He twice led NHL in faceoff efficiency and was 59 percent for his career. (Photo: David Zalubowski, AP)

 “Agitator yes but he could play,’’ Oklobzija said. “He certainly had proven what he was about. Somebody was going to want that quality at some point, because he plays too hard, he does too much for a team that other guys don’t want to do. He finally got his chance and holy cow.’’ 

Since retiring after the 2012-13 season, Nichol has worked as director of player development for Nashville in addition to coaching AAA travel hockey in the Rochester Monarchs youth organization where his sons are Pee Wee and Bantam players.

Whether it’s teaching 12-year-olds or 20-year-olds, Nichol scores every time with his messages about hard work, patience, perseverance, unselfishness and finding a role because he merely has to point to himself.

“I don’t have to be fake,’’ said the former McCulloch Trophy winner for community service. “I just tell my story. Being a good teammate and helping everyone, it really does carry weight.’’

Long playoff runs and championships in Rochester also brought out the best in my friend and former colleague Kevin O.

Over the course of three decades, "Klobby" covered 10 different head coaches, 23 Amerks playoff teams, two Calder Cup winners and five teams that made the finals. Oh, the stories he can tell.

Kevin attended high school in New Ulm, Minnesota, home to All-Star baseball catchers (Terry Steinbach) and, as we all were lucky to learn, exceptional hockey writers.

Former Democrat and Chronicle staff writer Kevin Oklobzija, 56, was on the Amerks beat a record 31-plus seasons and joins Hans Tanner as the only beat writers in Amerks Hall of Fame. Covering the team and the AHL was "much more of an honor and privilege than it was a job,'' he said. (Photo: JEN RYNDA staff photographer, JEN RYNDA staff photographer)

A two-time winner of the AHL's Ellery Award for outstanding newspaper coverage, Kevin grew up watching the Minnesota-born Carlson Brothers before they were the Hanson Brothers of Slap Shot movie fame.

And speaking of movies, Kevin said entering the Amerks Hall “is a little bit like seeing a movie marquee starring Tom Hanks and Robert Di Nero — my name doesn’t belong up there with Scotty Nichol.’’

Metcalfe, Nichol and hockey fans in town begged to differ. While players have to hit the net, writers have to hit a deadline and Kevin never missed with his expert eye and witty prose.

“He had our trust and he did his job in a very classy way,’' Metcalfe said.

“Kevin has such a love and passion for the game,’’ Nichol said. “It was really a thankless job because he doesn’t have 10,000 people cheering for him, but he has to paint a picture of how the game went and of each player’s personality and he was fantastic at it. It’s great to be honored with him.’’

Sharing an out-of-this-world (and probably body) experience: Induction into the Rochester Americans Hall of Fame.

Welcome to the O-Zone boys.