A Legendary Ride
Bernie Nicholls Time as a King Brings Back Fond Memories of Wayne Gretzky, Record Moments and Strange Bedfellows
It sat quietly during long drives, it didn’t order expensive lunches and it didn’t snore at night. All things considered, Bernie Nicholls’ stick made for a pretty good travel companion. Oh, and it got him 70 goals.
Nicholls’ 70-goal season in 1988-89 remains the Kings’ gold standard, a franchise single-season record that now seems all but unbreakable. Nicholls rode the wave that came with Wayne Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles, and the two talented scorers became highly compatible on the ice and fast friends off the ice.
In fact, Nicholls credits Gretzky for sparking his career-best 150-point season.
``It was the second or third road trip that we went on that season,’’ Nicholls said, ``and Gretz told me, `You should take your stick home with you. It would just be good luck. Take it home and take care of it.’
``So, we were in Winnipeg. I took the stick, the one I was going to use that night, to lunch with me and I took it back (to the hotel) and put it in bed with me. I scored three goals that night. Three goals. I took it home with me every day, every game day. If I went to a restaurant, pre-game, I would take it to the restaurant with me, and I would take it home and put it in bed with me. I scored 70 goals.’’
Nicholls, as friendly and free-spirited as they come, is a natural storyteller, just as he was a natural scorer on the ice. In 1,127 NHL games -- an oustanding 18-year career -- Nicholls totaled 475 goals and 734 assists with the Kings, New York Rangers, Edmonton, New Jersey, Chicago and San Jose.
Before Saturday night’s home game, the Kings will honor Nicholls in the first of its ``Legends Night’’ games. Nicholls spent only half of his career in Los Angeles, but said that in his heart, it feels like home.
``Even though I got traded and played for five other teams, for me, L.A. is still my team,’’ Nicholls said in a phone interview this week. ``I follow them probably more than anybody. I root for them probably more than anybody. I always want them to do well. I always love going back and doing their fantasy camps. Anything to do with the Kings, I really enjoy doing that. It just feels right.’’
It’s been more than two decades since Nicholls set the Kings’ single-season goal record, and few players have even come close. Hall of Fame winger Luc Robitaille scored 63 goals in 1992-93, but other than Robitaille, no other Kings player has even reached the 50-goal mark since Nicholls’ magical season.
Nicholls is in two exclusive clubs. Only eight players in NHL history have scored at least 70 goals in a single season, and only five -- Phil Esposito, Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Nicholls and Steve Yzerman -- have ever totaled at least 150 points in a season. Neither has happened in the NHL since the 1995-96 season.
``Any time you have an opportunity to play with arguably the greatest player of all time, great players always bring the best out of everybody,’’ Nicholls said. ``When you go from a team, you know, we were kind of in the bottom of the league in terms of being successful, and when you get a guy like Wayne, right away you have an opportunity to be successful. That, in itself, brings the best out of everybody.’’
Then again, Nicholls was no scoring slouch before Gretzky came to Los Angeles.
Drafted by the Kings in the fourth round in 1980, Nicholls made his NHL debut two years later, at age 20, and stuck in the lineup. In his first full season, he scored 14 goals, then 28, then 41, then 46. Nicholls also showed grit, as he missed only two games with a broken jaw, then played with the jaw wired shut.
Nicholls garnered attention on and off the ice. The on-ice part came naturally, helped along by Kings Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Miller, who took a look at Nicholls' arm-pumping, knee-pumping goal celebration and named it the ``Pumper-Nicholl,’’ one of the league’s most famous goal celebrations.
``I was just as excited as hell to score a goal,’’ Nicholls said. ``That was fun for me. To this day, I love to see guys get excited when they score. You scored a goal in the NHL. That’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. I loved scoring goals. Even when I play now, I get excited.’’
Scoring goals, and celebrating them, made Nicholls stand out on the ice. Away from the rink, it was his clothes. Nicholls broke into the NHL in the early 80s and certainly dressed the part. Tales of Nicholls’ wardrobe are still, 30 years later, fodder for stories among longtime Kings employees.
``I loved the clothes,’’ Nicholls said. ``I had a fur coat that I wore sometimes on the road. I think what I’m known most for is, I had a pink silk suit that I wore at different times. I even wore it one time when I went to New York, when I got traded there. I had a picture taken of me wearing it in New York. I even think one of my hockey cards had me in some kind of suit, skating.
``I loved wearing stuff like that. I used to (irritate) Marcel Dionne, because I’d come in with the suit and I’d have a pair of sneakers and a hat. You know, Marcel is old-school, and he’s saying, `Who in the hell is this kid? What’s he doing?’ But it was fun, I liked it. I always liked dressing up. It was just a lot of fun.’’
Nicholls had no idea how fun things would get after the summer of 1988, when Gretzky arrived from Edmonton. Nicholls and Gretzky had no previous friendship but became fast friends. They would eat lunch together daily and spend free time together on the road. For Nicholls, it was a dream come true.
After his 46-goal season in 1985-86, Nicholls’ numbers dipped, and he was coming off a 32-goal season. Gretzky’s arrival transformed the Kings in general and Nicholls in particular, and put Nicholls, then 27 years old, in a goal-scoring echelon that he never previously thought he could reach.
``I would say 50 (was possible), for sure,’’ Nicholls said. ``But then you’re playing with `The Great One.’ and nobody passes the puck better than him. I would say, not being cocky, but just confident in myself, that I could definitely get 50. But now I’m playing with `The Great One,’ and 50 turns into 70.
``You know, I have to give credit to Robbie Ftorek, our coach. I was more about passing the puck than shooting the puck, and he harped on me all year. `Shoot the puck, shoot the puck, shoot the puck.’ When you’re playing with Wayne, he’s passing it, so you should be shooting it. I think I had close to 400 shots, or over 400 shots, that year, so I had no problem shooting. Obviously it all paid off.’’
Then, almost as quickly, it all ended. The next season, Nicholls had 27 goals in his first 47 games when, in January, he was traded to the New York Rangers for Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom.
``I absolutely was blindsided,’’ Nicholls said. ``The funny thing was, it was after my good year. I had talked to the owner [Bruce McNall], because I wanted to buy a house in L.A. and it was an expensive house. I said, `What do you think?’ and he said, `Oh, absolutely.’ He said, `I’ll never trade you.’ I was at the All-Star Game and there were no rumors or anything.
``It was Mike Vernon who came up to me. He said, `I heard you were traded.’ And I kind of looked and said, `What are you talking about?’ I saw Bruce McNall and I said, `Bruce, what’s going on?’ And he said, `Yeah, we traded you to New York.’ I was just absolutely floored. I could not believe it. Like I said, L.A. has always been my favorite place. I just scored 70 goals. Having the opportunity to play with Wayne was the ultimate, and to have that cut short, after a year and a half, I’m thinking, `Wow.’ It was tough. That really hurt. What a great team we had there, great people. It was awesome.’’
Nicholls enjoyed a lengthy career after he left Los Angeles. He never again scored more than 25 goals in a season but still speaks glowingly about his time playing under legendary coach Herb Brooks in New Jersey and playing with teammates such as Chris Chelios in Chicago and Martin Brodeur in New Jersey.
Ultimately, Nicholls’ career brought him back to California. He played parts of two seasons in San Jose -- under current Kings general manager Dean Lombardi -- before he retired in 1998. Nicholls now spends a major chunk of time in the Toronto area and enjoys moose hunting and golfing, and is still an active participant in various fantasy camps, including one involving his famous former teammate, Gretzky.
Nicholls has, however, stopped carrying his stick around town for good luck.
``I did it, for one whole year, and that’s because Gretz told me,’’ Nicholls said. ``What are you going to do? You get a hat trick the first time you take it home with you, and it’s coming home every day after that.’’