Hockey owner, 55, suits up as emergency player

When the Elmira Enforcers took the ice against the Danbury Hat Tricks in a Federal Prospects Hockey League game on Friday night, they had an unusual veteran player in their lineup. Unusual because he was 55 years old. Unusual because he was also the team’s owner.

With several players out of the lineup, Elmira owner Robbie Nichols — drafted 181st overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1983 — suited up for the Enforcers, 25 years after his last season of active professional play.

“As you get older, you get slower. I couldn’t keep up with these kids. My mind can go. My legs can’t,” Nichols told ESPN on Sunday. “But it was exciting to be there. You get competitive again.”

His comeback started on Friday morning, when Elmira coach Brent Clarke walked into his owner’s office after practice. The Enforcers are 9-10-2 on the season, but had been short-handed recently.

“How’s it looking?” Nichols asked.

“Not good,” responded Clarke.

The Enforcers were going to be six players short for their game against Danbury that night: Four injured players wouldn’t suit up; another would dress but not skate a shift, due to a groin injury; and another player having flown to California for a personal matter. Clarke knew he’d have to suit up for the game on an emergency basis — not exactly a stunner, considering the 33-year-old had played in 27 games since his last full season in 2016. In fact, he played against Battle Creek the previous weekend, and tallied a hat trick.

“He’s had 10 points in the last three games he had to play in. He’s been the best player on the team in the games he played,” said Nichols.

It was around 11 a.m. on a game day. Finding another player could prove difficult. Clarke told his owner, “If I’m playing, you’re playing.”

Nichols was drafted in 1983 by the Flyers but never made it to the NHL. His minor league career saw him play 420 games in the IHL and 122 in the AHL, winning a Calder Cup with the Adirondack Red Wings in 1989. He last played regularly for the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League in 1992-93. He suited up for one playoff game for the Flint Generals of the UHL in 1998. But since then, Nichols has been a coach and team executive, his time on the ice spent in recreational men’s leagues and the occasional exhibition game.

“I had to think about it a bit. I knew I’d be sore. But some Advil before the game and during the game meant I wouldn’t feel pain until after the game,” said Nichols.

Most of Nichols’s pregame preparations were his usual ones as team owner, including getting the arena prepped for the game. But there was one player superstition that crept into it: When he played for the Kalamazoo Wings in the mid-1980s, Nichols had six points in a game after eating a Big Mac and fries that day. So it was off to the Golden Arches for a pregame meal.

“Maybe I’d have my best game ever. Or Just get through it,” he said.

Clarke had a full uniform kit in Nichols’s locker stall when he arrived in the dressing room. The room was quieter than it usually is before a game — a byproduct of the boss being present. But Nichols was on the boys in the pregame: Doing pregame stretches, running in the hallway and participating in the soccer kick-around.

Since Clarke was playing, injured forward Ahmed Mahfouz was the acting coach.

“I just wanted to help guys out. If someone got hurt, I could take a shift or two,” said Nichols. “I told [Mahfouz] that I was only there in case of emergency. He said, ‘Well, you tell me when you want to go.'”

His night started as one might expect it would for a 55-year-old forward.

“The first period was tough. I was terrible. I had three shifts and didn’t get much done,” said Nichols. “The second period, I started getting my legs. I ran over three guys. Had some good hits. And got a penalty.”

Nichols was called for roughing at 9:56 of the second period. He later acknowledged the boldness of an on-ice official calling a penalty on a team owner.

His opponents took notice of this veteran addition to the Enforcers. At one point, a player from Danbury skated over and informed Nichols that his father had played with him decades ago.

Nichols didn’t play a shift in the third period, after having played around six for the game. He didn’t tally a point or register a shot on the Enforcers’ checking line, skating with a 21-year-old and a 22-year-old. After the 5-4 loss to Danbury, hardly any of the players talked to him — “They never talk to the owner,” Nichols said — other than a few asking if he had fun.

Nichols felt good on Saturday, and then sore on Sunday, as the effects from a two-handed slash he was given by one of the players he checked set in.

What’s his future as a player? The Enforcers didn’t need him Saturday night. His media relations department wants him to suit up again, however, framing the emergency stint as historic. The headline on the team’s press release for the game: “BREAKING NEWS! ROBBIE NICHOLS CHASING DOWN GORDIE HOWE’S RECORD!”

“Gordie Howe played in six decades. So I guess my playing means I played in my fifth decade,” Nichols said.

That’s with a new decade only a few days away.

Nichols acknowledged he could see the ice again for Elmira. “But I told [my media relations person] not to use Gordie Howe’s name in the same breath as mine again.”

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