Kent Nilsson: The Calgary Flames Superstar Who Chose Not To Be

Kent Nilsson
Portrait of Swedish professional hockey player Kent Nilsson of the Calgary Flames during a road game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, New York, New York, early 1980s. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

His name would have been iconic to hockey fans if only he had wanted it to be. Instead, his stardom dissipated within just a few years of his dominant debut. “Kenta” and “The Magic Man,” they called him. Today, Kent Nilsson is just a fading memory.

He could have been so much more.

Kent Nilsson: The Flames Star Who Chose Not To Be

“He’s the purest, most talented player in the league. Great player, great shot”Wayne Gretzky, March 1987 (“ROUNDUP Oilers Get Nilsson,” The Globe and Mail, 3 Mar 1987).

The Virtuoso

Kent Nilsson was a virtuoso. His ability to handle the puck and generate effortless offense prompted witnesses to draw comparisons between the Swedish magician and the league’s most dominant player at the time, Wayne Gretzky.

He exhibited boundless creativity and a refined sense of finesse. He was among the most skilled players of his generation (“Calgary Flames,” Calgary Herald, 18 Dec 2005). Among Nilsson’s many gifts to the sport was Peter Forsberg‘s famous one-handed shootout move. Forsberg’s move was lifted from an identical move used by Nilsson at the 1989 World Championship. “The goalie… went, like, into the stands,” recalled Forsberg in the immediate post-game interview of that Gold Medal game, admitting that he had seen Nilsson’s move in 1989 (Cam Cole, Edmonton Journal, 28 Feb 1994).

“In my opinion, Kenta… was as good as the guy 200 miles north [Gretzky] — when he wanted to play.” – Ken Houston, Flames forward (1975-1982) (“Calgary Flames,” Calgary Herald, 18 Dec 2005)

Such was the sentiment of Ken Houston, a linemate of Nilsson’s during their time together with the Atlanta, and later Calgary, Flames. Kent Nilsson brimmed with potential. Some figure he could have been a deity of the sport.

His lack of ambition laid waste to that wondrous opportunity.

The Joy of Painting

His talents far exceeded his own expectations. Although he practiced and played “with three or four teams,” played shinny on the lake “five months a year,” spent other times “skating in a sweatsuit” and committed every passing moment to the game during his youth, hockey was truly a matter of leisure (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, 31 Aug 1981).

Life as a successful hockey player was simply a bonus for this serene soul (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, 31 Aug 1981). Nilsson grew up in a small, Swedish village called Nynaashamn. His mind was filled with aspirations of house-painting by day and playing the sport he loved at night. His perspective of the world was such that, at 19 years old, “the money he was making as a player and the money he earned as a painter were giving him the good life” (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, 31 Aug 1981).

Dreaming of Simplicity

“I wasn’t expecting to be able to play professional or anything like that. I was playing for fun” – Kent Nilsson, August 1981 (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, Aug 31 1981).

He dreamed of a simple life. He was a free spirit: “When I turned professional, I didn’t care how much I was making. I wanted to prove I could play. I knew if I did that, the money would come later… My parents were happy for me when I told them I was going over to sign a contract… They were happy but they don’t care how much money I make or things like that, as long as I’m happy” (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, 31 Aug 1981).

“I expected to have an ordinary job and work for the rest of my life… I know a lot of Swedish players turned professional, but I didn’t expect it to happen to me” – Kent Nilsson, August 1981 (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, 31 Aug 1981).

Håkan Loob, a teammate of Nilsson’s at the NHL and international levels, knew his friend’s personality as well as anyone else.

“Kent’s Kent… He’s played the same all the years I’ve seen him. When he’s on top of his game, he’s as good as ever… I know Kent. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if there’s really pressure on him. He’s been pretty happy all his life,” said Loob (Eric Duhatschek, CanWest News, 24 Apr 1990).

Pressure never seemed to affect Nilsson, for better or for worse.

Good Enough

In spite of his own modest standards, Kent Nilsson scored 264 goals and 422 assists for a total of 686 points in 553 NHL games. He averaged more than a point per game throughout his career. He was the World Hockey Association’s Rookie of the Year in 1978 and its mostly gentlemanly player in 1979. Nilsson was an NHL All-Star in 1980 and 1981, was awarded the Golden Puck as the Swedish Elite League’s Most Valuable Player in 1989, and was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2006, the WHA Hall of Fame in 2010, and the Swedish Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.

No Swedish player has scored more points in a single NHL season than Kent Nilsson. His 131 points in 1980-81 remain an all-time record. For 42 years, he also held the single-season record for most points by a junior-aged player in the Swedish Hockey League. Nilsson scored 53 points in 36 games with Djurgårdens in 1975-76. Vancouver Canucks star Elias Pettersson eclipsed this total with 56 points in 44 games in 2017-18, but Nilsson still holds the points-per-game record.

Nilsson, additionally, averaged 1.359 points per game as a Calgary Flame, by far the highest of any notable player in that franchise’s history.

The Protégé

The NHL’s Atlanta Flames chose Kent Nilsson in the fourth round, 64th overall of the 1976 amateur draft, but he began his North American career with the World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets in 1977-78. He represented the Jets for two seasons before joining the Flames in 1979. During his time with the Jets, Nilsson twice won the Avco Cup — the WHA’s championship trophy — and scored a total of 81 goals, 214 points in 158 games. His second championship, most notably, was against Wayne Gretzky and the 1978-79 Edmonton Oilers in the final year of the WHA’s existence.

He was a budding star with the Jets. The talented 1979 WHA champions were not allowed to remain intact upon their entrance into the National Hockey League. Had they been, he would have preferred to remain in Winnipeg (Ted Wyman, The Winnipeg Sun, 19 May 2019). He played in the shadow of other star players such as veterans Ulf Nilsson — no relation –, Bobby Hull and Anders Hedberg. This trio comprised what some considered to be the best line in hockey at the time (William Houston, The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1984).

Despite his lesser role, the younger Nilsson, Kent, excelled and soon blossomed into the team’s leader. In his sophomore year with the WHA Jets, after Hedberg and the elder Nilsson departed for the NHL in 1978, Kent graduated to become the team’s top scorer. He may very well have established a much greater legacy as a Winnipeg Jet had he continued to wear their colors, his rare skill and talent offering a stark contrast to the post-NHL merger Jets’ pedestrian composition. This potential legacy as a Jet was not to be, however.

Breaking Up a Powerhouse

The 1979 NHL-WHA merger limited the Jets and other WHA teams’ ability to retain their players. The merger rules prevented them from protecting more than two skaters and two goaltenders. Jets general manager John Ferguson ultimately chose to protect 22-year-old forward Morris Lukowich, a 65-goal scorer that season, and defenceman Scott Campbell (Ted Wyman, The Winnipeg Sun, 19 May 2019).

Any WHA players who were previously property of the NHL had their rights reverted back to their former National Hockey League clubs (Donald Ramsay, The Globe and Mail, 22 Mar 1979). Nilsson, originally an Atlanta Flames selection in 1976, was reclaimed by the team that had drafted him. He finally joined the Flames in 1979. His time in Winnipeg was over after two brief but magical WHA seasons.

“The Purest Natural Talent”

At the time of Nilsson’s arrival in Atlanta, Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher called him “one of the most gifted players in professional hockey” (“NHL Notebook Hull decision,” The Globe and Mail, 12 Sep 1979). Jets manager Ferguson raved to Fletcher about Nilsson’s abilities. He was “the purest natural talent he’d ever seen” (George Johnson, Calgary Herald, 15 Apr 2002). This was especially significant because Ferguson had been a player with the Montreal Canadiens between 1963-64 and 1970-71. He had played alongside a multitude of Hall of Fame players.

Ferguson then added: “‘But he’ll drive you absolutely nuts'” (George Johnson, Calgary Herald, 15 Apr 2002). It was an apt reflection of Nilsson’s double-edged nature.

Nilsson debuted in the National Hockey League in 1979 with the Atlanta Flames. One season later, the Flames relocated to Calgary. He subsequently experienced his greatest single season of individual play in the NHL. It was an historic campaign.

Igniting a Flame

Kent Nilsson was prolific during his time with the Flames, but most notably breathed life into the fan base in the team’s first year in Calgary. He quickly set a franchise single-season points record with 131 points in 1980-81 — a record that still stands as of today — and established himself as one of the NHL’s most acclaimed talents (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, Aug 31 1981). The Globe and Mail, in 1981, referred to him as the “heart and soul” of the Calgary Flames. He was understood, by and large, to be “one of the NHL’s most dangerous scorers” (“Starring role a surprise,” The Globe and Mail, Aug 31 1981).

His 49 goals and 131 points in 1980-81 placed him third in NHL scoring that year. Only Marcel Dionne (135 points) and Wayne Gretzky (164 points) were ahead in the Art Ross Trophy race. This remarkable performance included a streak of 52 points in 28 games, second only to Gretzky’s 65 points during that same stretch (William Houston, The Globe and Mail, 7 Mar 1981). Nilsson was just 24 years old at the time.

“Kenta Didn’t Need Anyone Else”

Kent Nilsson dazzled with his dizzying puck maneuvers and sheer offensive skill. Willi Plett, his linemate with the Flames, frequently expressed amazement about his team’s offensive leader. In 2002, he spoke of Nilsson’s ability to dominate games.

“There are very, very few players who can totally control a game… Kenta didn’t need anyone else to shine. And he made everyone around him — no matter who they were — shine, too” – Willi Plett, Calgary Flames teammate of Nilsson, April 2002 (George Johnson, Calgary Herald, 15 Apr 2002).

Plett, while playing alongside Nilsson in that 1981 season, described him as perhaps “the fastest skater in the league… He can pass, shoot, handle the puck. We try to get the puck to him before we reach the blue line. He has the ability to carry it in, attract attention, then pass off. Believe me, it doesn’t hurt being on his line” (William Houston, The Globe and Mail, 7 Mar 1981).

The Sea on the Tide

On December 20, 1984, Nilsson recorded four goals and five points in a 9-1 victory against Vancouver. He had previously experienced seven five-point games, as well as a six-point game, in a Flames uniform. This would be his eighth and final five-point evening in the NHL. Four-point games were more common — he had 24 during his career.

After the game, Nilsson told reporters that “I didn’t have any legs… But, yeah, after a few goals I began to feel good” (“Nilsson nets four,” The Globe and Mail, 21 Dec 1984). Flames coach Bob Johnson suggested that “the way he was skating out there tonight, he could have played defence and still scored four” (“Nilsson nets four,” The Globe and Mail, 21 Dec 1984). There were nights when the game became second nature to Nilsson.

Concerns about Nilsson’s defensive game, however, often crept into the minds of those who watched him play.

Despite being the heart of the team’s offense, Nilsson was frequently accused of lacking passion and intensity. He often shied away from the corners of the rink and was hardly physical. Hockey columnist Al Strachan wrote in 1984, “Calgary Flames would be better off without their leading scorer, Kent Nilsson, who ‘invariably disappears in the playoffs anyway, especially when the going gets rough'” (James Allen, The Globe and Mail, 26 Apr 1984).

“Supposed To Be…”

During the 1981 Stanley Cup Playoffs, general manager Fletcher expressed significant disappointment with Nilsson’s playoff intensity.

“Nilsson’s got to play like he’s Bobby Smith… He’s supposed to be a better player. He’s got to show it or there’s no tomorrow” – Cliff Fletcher, Flames general manager, May 1981 (James Christie, The Globe and Mail, 7 May 1981).

The Calgary Flames reached the 1981 Stanley Cup Semi-Finals — round three — against the Minnesota North Stars. However, they were eliminated by a series score of 4-2. This lack of success became Nilsson’s legacy with the Flames. “Until Kent Nilsson starts to play as if he cared whether the team wins or not – especially in the tough games – the Flames can’t go all the way,” wrote Strachan in October 1983 (Al Strachan, The Globe and Mail, 1 Oct 1983).

Every Word is a Symphony

The vitriol directed towards Nilsson and other under-performing players was disheartening. Oilers coach and general manager Glen Sather elaborated in 1983.

“It’s the worst media in the league… It’s malicious. There’s no way quality players like Kent Nilsson should have to put up with that garbage,” stated Sather (Christie, 1983). The media’s scorn was, however, widely representative of the fanbase’s dismay towards the team’s lack of playoff success (Christie, 1983).

While in Bern, Switzerland in 1990, Nilsson recognized some of these reporters at a local rink. He shook their hands, then remarked, tongue-in-cheek, “Five years of hell you gave me in the papers. Why should I talk to you now” (Duhatschek, 1990).

His greatest battle had not been with any coach nor any opposing team. The media were his greatest adversaries. His coaches and teammates had left him dignified, but the media feasted on his struggles. Nilsson was often criticized for “his reluctance to work the corners” (Rick Matsumoto, Toronto Star, 17 May 1987). He was often called “lethargic,” and was disparaged for his lack of urgency (Frank Orr, Toronto Star, 17 Dec 1986). Spectators felt he lacked commitment. They felt he lacked heart.

This Bird You Can Not Change

The Calgary Herald’s George Johnson once described Nilsson as “some wonderful, multi-coloured exotic bird that took your breath away” (George Johnson, Calgary Herald, 15 Apr 2002). He was extravagant, and yet spectacularly subdued.

His “nonchalance gave coaches headaches and hives.” His “sublime artistry,” however, could dictate the course of a match. He had “the ability to be totally invisible for 59 minutes, and then in the 60th make the pass to pull one out of the fire” (George Johnson, Calgary Herald, 26 Mar 2008).

Alas, after five seasons in Calgary, his time had run out.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this feature.

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