Kent Nilsson is known in hockey circles as the Magic Man. Some say he got the nickname because of his high skill level that rivals that of a Gretzky or a Kharlamov. Others say he earned the name because he disappeared when the NHL playoffs came around.
Born in Nynashamn, Sweden, Nilsson is one of the most technically superb players that Sweden has ever produced. He could awe crowds with his stickhandling and playmaking abilities and skated effortlessly. The slippery winger was as skilled a player as their ever was.
So with all that skill why isn't Kent Nilsson mentioned in the same breath as Gretzky or Orr? Simple. He was lazy. He'd even admit it on occassion. He rarely worked out and relied strictly on his god given talent. But oh what a talent to watch!
Prior to coming to North America, Kent played in the Swedish Elite League for Djurgarden in 1975-76 and won the scoring title in the league. Despite his spectacular exploits, his team got relegated.
The next season Kent Nilsson went to play for Djurgarden's greatest rivals AIK, who remained in the Elite League. He was AIK's leading scorer that season.
Kent had already represented Sweden in the 1974, 1975 and 1976 European and World Junior Championships before it was time for him to debut for Sweden on the senior level in 1976. In 1977 when Sweden played in the Izvestija tournamnet in Moscow he was approached by Winnipeg Jets (then with the WHA) GM Gerry Wilson who told him that the Winnipeg Jets were interested in him. Kent was of course already drafted by the Atlanta Flames of the NHL but he decided to play for Winnipeg, who were the talk of Sweden with Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson (no relation) teamed up with the legendary Bobby Hull.
His debut in the Jets uniform was over all expectations. He led the league in points ahead of Bobby Hull after the first few games. Kent finished his rookie season with an excellent 107 points.
The following season Kent would duplicate the 107 points, this time in 2 less games. In two seasons in the WHA, Kent, ever the gentleman, earned just 16 minutes in penalties.
With Kent in the lineup, the Winnipeg Jets went on to win two AVCO Cups. The AVCO Cup is given to the WHA Champion at season's end.
When the WHA folded he went on to play for the Atlanta Flames where he would be teamed with Yugoslavian born Ivan Boldirev and big Ken Houston. He had a good first season in the NHL collecting a very respectable 93 points.
After that 1979-80 season the Flames organization moved from Atlanta to Calgary, where Kent thrived under the new surroundings. In his first season in Calgary Kent became the first European player in the NHL to reach the 100-point plateau. He finished the season with 131 points!!
In 1981 Kent Nilsson played in the Canada Cup, the Swedish team was heralded as a "dream team" and the expectations among the Swedish fans and media was high. But the Swedes flopped including Kent Nilsson, who simply wasn't prepared physically to play.
When the 1984 Canada Cup was played Kent was in a much better shape and finished third in the scoring race with 11 points and Sweden made it to the finals where they lost to Canada.
After his phenomenal 131-point season in the NHL the expectations were high on him in Calgary. Kent started the season slowly with a shoulder injury which would cause him to miss three months and 40 games. He would finish the season with a still impressive 55 points in just 41 games.
The 1982-83 season saw the arrival of Badger Bob Johnson in Calgary as the new head coach. Johnson was very upfront with Kent and told him that he must work harder and that he expected a much better work ethic from Kent. Kent never got along very well with Johnson, perhaps not surprisingly. Still Nilsson scored 104 points while playing a full 80 games.
The next two seasons Kent put up impressive numbers but everyone expect more after his 131 point season a couple of years earlier. Nilsson scored 80 and 99 points in 1983-84 and 1984-85 respectively.
After long speculation, Kent's numbered days in Calgary came to an end in June of 1985. The Flames had traded their Magic Man to Minnesota.
In Minnesota his production slowed to a crawl compared to what he had shown before. His first year he scored just 16 goals and 60 points. Part way through the next season he was traded back to Alberta, this time to Edmonton, where he would help Wayne Gretzky's Oilers win the 1987 Stanley Cup.
While in Edmonton Kent got to know an old Edmonton player named Ron Chipperfield who at that time was the GM in Bolzano, Italy. He told Kent that he should try playing in Italy because it was good money for a short season. What also was appealing to Kent was the fact that the travels between the games were 3-4 hours by bus and the climate was good so all in all Kent figured that it could be worth a try.
While the lifestyle fit Kent's preferences perfectly, the hockey was anything but challenging for him. He led Bolzano to the league championship while scoring 71 goals and 158 points in just 43 games!
In 1988-89 he opted for a return to Sweden and his old club Djurgarden. After winning the Swedish Championship, Nilsson became hockey's globetrotter, playing for teams in Switzerland, Norway, Austria and Spain. In 1994-95 Kent made a comeback of sorts in Edmonton playing in 6 games with the Oilers.
Kent has been a champion in the WHA, NHL, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, a pretty unique feat. Kent is one of only ten players to have won both the WHA and NHL Cups.