A few years ago I had the privilege of helping out hockey beat writer Rich Hammond cover the Los Angeles Kings hockey club during the waning days of the season. His newspaper at the time, the Los Angeles Daily News, had just laid-off a ton of people and I volunteered some time to help with his blog.
For me it was a dream realized, as I entered the locker room on a pretty regular basis, and was interviewing players and coaches, ultimately seeing the stuff I put together in print (or online).
But of all the experiences that Spring and Summer, none were more fulfilling to me than a feature I was writing called “Catching Up With….” where I had the opportunity to reach out to the retired Kings players and talk with them about their careers in Los Angeles.
If covering the current Kings was a dream realized than chatting-up my heroes from the past was a bit of sports journalism ecstasy.
The following was originally posted on the old Daily News blogsite called Inside the Kings. It is an interview I conducted with my personal favorite player of all time, Bernie Nicholls. He was a gracious interview and came across as funny and insightful as I’d thought he would.
Hope you enjoy this!
From June, 2008…..
He wasn’t a big guy, but he was a big-time scorer in his 7+ seasons with the Kings, culminating in a magical 1988-89 season which saw him tally 70 goals for Los Angeles.
His approach to the game was self-admittedly childlike, and Kings fans adored him for his style, personality and the aforementioned knack for scoring goals.
Bernie Nicholls was never flashy, was considered amazingly slow – too slow for the NHL was how some put it – and the Kings took him with a fourth round pick, number 73 overall, in the 1980 NHL draft. Following another season in Juniors, Nicholls played 55 games in the 1981-82 season for the Kings’ AHL affiliate New Haven Nighthawks, where he netted 41 goals before getting the call to the NHL.
In just 22 games for the Kings in 81-82, Nicholls scored 14 goals, including three hat tricks in 10 days (vs Calgary, Pittsburgh and Colorado).
Nicholls, who is the fifth all time leading scorer in Kings’ history with 758 points (327 goals), was ultimately dealt to the New York Rangers at mid-season in 1989-90 and played through the 1998-99 season, making additional stops in Edmonton, New Jersey, Chicago and San Jose before retiring.
One of only 12 NHL players to ever record eight points in a single game (two goals and six assists in a 1988 shellacking of Toronto), Nicholls celebrated scoring goals in his own unique style, a moved dubbed the “Pumper Nicholl,” (think Pete Townshend’s wind-mill meets Kirk Gibson’s elbow-pump in his famous World Series home run trot).
The fans loved every minute of it, and Nicholls loved every minute of his time in Los Angeles.
Nicholls, now 46 and living in Texas, took some time to happily reminisce about his days as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
Catching Up With………………Bernie Nicholls
Question: What are your memories of that call-up 81-82 season in which you scored 32 points in only 22 games?
Nicholls: I think it was like anything. It was my opportunity to come up and play. I know the first game up was kind of weird, I spent the entire game on the bench and the coach at the time didn’t play me. Then I got sent back down and then I got called back up after the New Haven coach went up there and then they played me. I think it took me nine games before I scored my first goal and then I remember beating Colorado 2-0 and I scored both goals and that kind of jump started things. I think I went back home and I had two hat tricks in a row, then we went on the road and I scored another hat trick – I had three of them in four games. From there it just kind of snowballed and I kind of made my mark and they welcomed me in more or less. Any time you get the call you have to show yourself and I think I did that. It was all positive from there on in.
Question: That season you had the chance to participate in what is likely the most memorable game in franchise history, the “Miracle on Manchester” comeback win over Edmonton.
Nicholls: The funny part is that we were down 5-0 and our owner sits right between the benches there and his whole entourage left. I think we were still down by five with about 12 minutes to go when Garry Unger took a five minute major for high sticking, and I don’t know if we scored just one or two goal there, but we just got it going. To see the smirk on Glen Sather’s face disappear, you know he kind of came across as kind of an arrogant coach, he was a great coach and that was such a great, young team, but kind of cocky at the time and see us come back and win that game was great. And then we end up beating them up there to eliminate them was really pretty cool.
Question: You had a goal in that wide open elimination game, right?
Nicholls: Yeah, I scored the winning goal. That game was 7-4 and the first game of the series was 10-8. High scoring games. In that first game it was funny because Charlie Simmer scored the ninth goal and it went in off his leg, which is the one that he had broken and had a pin in it, so we joked about that with him.
Question: Tell me about the evolution of the “Pumper Nicholl.”
Nicholls: I think it was Bob Miller who started it. I was always excited to score and I showed it. You know you see even now the young kids when they score they are excited about it and I was no different. I really enjoyed to score and when I did I was excited about it. Even now when I see guys who get excited to score a goal I think it is great.
Question: One of the things that really endeared you to the fans in Los Angeles was your personality. It always seemed like you were having fun out there.
Nicholls: I think I got criticized for it a lot early in my career. I think people thought that I wasn’t taking the game serious, but then they realized that there was not a person who was more dedicated to the game and wanted to win more than I did. I took losing harder than probably most people. Even to this day when I do tours through Western Canada and play in charity games I put my skates on and I just love it. I’m still just a kid, it’s like I’m 10-years-old again. Even now at 46-years-old it is absolutely fun. It was just a dream to play every day. I got to skate and play and I enjoyed it. I talked to players and I had fun. I think you see it now. I get a kick out of Ovechkin. That kid has a blast out there. No matter who scores, he kills them, he jumps on them, he hugs them and he just loves it and I love to see that because that is how I was. I get so much enjoyment out of watching little kids play hockey and getting enjoyment out of it because that is how I was. I would never change that.
Question: So now when you put on the skates for the charity games, how you gotten any faster?
Nicholls: (Laughs). I seem like I’m faster because the guys I am playing against aren’t as good (laughs).
Question: I know that was one of the knocks on you, that you were a slow skater, but you seem to overcome that with a certain craftiness on the ice that enabled you to get open and be in the right place at the right time.
Nicholls: I think as much as speed is a huge part of the game, I have seen guys who were a lot faster who didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I did. You know Luc Robitaille was a bad skater and he scored 600 goals, so I think you know where they can stick that “bad skater” label (laughs). Obviously it is a big part of the game, even now, but as long as you are strong on your skates and when you get to where you are going you know what to do with the puck you are okay.
Question: From 82-87 you see the gradual, steady progression of your game, and then wow, 1988-89 you score 70 goals. Tell me about that incredible season.
Nicholls: I think you could tell every year that I was gradually getting better, and I think also with Wayne Gretzky coming there it had a lot to do with it. Our power play was absolutely unbelievable. I even had eight short-handed goals. I also give a lot of credit to the coach, Robbie Ftorek. I would sooner pass the puck that shoot the puck, I always have. He criticized me every time I didn’t shoot it. That year, everyone kind of assumes I played with Wayne, which I did on the power play, but I played with Luc Robitaille and Dave Taylor most of the year, so there’s two pretty awesome hockey players to play with. I think it probably had a lot to do with the guys I played with, and I think I also had over 400 shots on goal that year. A lot of guys don’t even get 400 shots in a career (laughs). I was told to shoot. And for as many goals as I had, and I played in 79 games, I think I went about 12 games in a row without a goal at one point, so a pretty big slump. So it was just a combination of playing with great players and obviously having Wayne there. Any time you see the great ones, Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, they always bring the best out of all the other players, and Wayne did that. Every night we went out and we wanted to be the best we could be. It was a fun time. You couldn’t wait to get to the rink. You couldn’t wait to play.
Question: Do you have a specific memory of goal number 64 that season?
Nicholls: I would probably remember every goal, but you might have to remind me a little bit.
Question: Oh, it was a pretty fun goal.
Nicholls: Oh, the one that went off my back?
Question: Yep, against Calgary. Wayne has the puck coming up the right side and you kind of crisscross. He dumps it over to Steve Duchesne….
Nicholls: …..and he shoots it from the point, and I get tripped and I’m going into the net and he caught me on the back. I do remember that. You know you get those goals sometimes, off the leg or whatever. I remember Marcel (Dionne) putting one in off his face one night. You see goals sometimes and they aren’t always pretty goals, but if you think about it, as a player I was doing the right thing, I was driving to the net. And when you do that, good things happen, and that one went off my back so I was pretty fortunate.
Question: I watched the replay of that goal a few times and your reaction is pretty funny. You are laughing, then slapping hands with your teammates. Can you walk me through your reaction to that goal?
Nicholls: Oh yeah – it hurt. You kind of see that expression, and then I’m excited because it went in the net. You know it doesn’t matter if it goes off your stick, leg or foot, you get excited. Yeah, I went to the net and got tripped, but then Stevie shot it, and he shot it pretty hard and it caught me more on the side, kind of on the ribs and it went in, but it hurt. They don’t hurt as much when they go in the net though.
Question: I’m not much of a lip reader, but you know Bernie I’ve watched that replay a few times and I’m wondering if you said what I think you said, something a little R-rated.
Nicholls: That’s exactly what I said (laughs).
Question: Getting back to Wayne’s arrival in Los Angeles. What was it like to be a teammate, to play on the power play with him – what was it like to be on a team with Wayne Gretzky?
Nicholls: It was amazing. You know we go from having 12-13-14,000 fans a night to 16,005 and everywhere we went buildings were packed and people came out to watch. That was exciting. One thing that people probably don’t know is that he really didn’t like to be alone, and I got to hang out with Wayne every day for a year and half and it was awesome, just seeing how he operates and just as a person. He kind of took me under his wing and we just hung together. One problem I did have with him is that he just loved McDonalds. Every day he wanted to go to McDonalds and I just hate that stuff, even to this day because of eating it every day with Wayne (laughs). It was awesome just to see how he operates and how he plays every day. It was a lot of fun for everybody.
Question: Then comes 1989-90 season, things are going pretty well, you head off to the all star game and you get traded to the New York Rangers.
Nicholls: I’m on the Campbell Conference All Star team and we are in Pittsburgh for the game and I get traded. It was really weird. It was devastating. Obviously, having the year I was having, playing with Wayne, and the team we had was awesome. I had just bought a house in Los Angeles. I had gone to the owner, it was a really expensive house and I wanted to be sure, and he said, “Sure, you’re going to be here forever.” And then three months later I get traded. It was devastating for me.
Question: I seem to recall some weirdness around you getting notified of the trade by Tom Webster?
Nicholls: Tom and I didn’t get along too well.
Question: What was the story behind that?
Nicholls: There was a lot to it. I think the worst part was that he would want us to ride the bike after a game and that was fine, but one time we had played the night before and I had been named the first star and I was doing lots of interviews, and TV and I didn’t ride the bike. Well, he was pissed the next day and he asked me if I rode the bike and I go, “I haven’t rode the bike in nine years, why would I ride it now?” Understanding how things go sometimes after games, you do interviews, it was late, so I had said screw it. I mean I scored a big goal, I was the number one star, give the guy a break. He obviously didn’t last a whole lot of time in the league, so I can’t really say much good about it because of his past record. I don’t think it was me, or the team. Maybe he just needed to do something else.
Question: I have a memory of your first game back at the Forum following the trade. Do you have any memory of that game?
Nicholls: Yeah, I could go through the whole game if you want (laughs). I remember the whole game. I was really, really nervous. It was only my third game with the Rangers. We went to Edmonton first, then Calgary and then we come to L.A and we won, 3-1 and I had a goal. What was funny was that the first game back in New York for the guys I got traded for, Tony (Granato) and Tomas (Sandstrom), they beat us in New York, so it worked out good for all of us.
Question: Regressing a bit, let’s go through some random Los Angeles memories for you. Do you have a memory of the first goal you scored as a King?
Nicholls: Oh sure. Colorado, I got a breakaway and I deked Glenn Resch and scored. What was amazing was a month or two later I get a letter in the mail and a fan had taken a picture of it. It was like I was shooting at an empty net. It is awesome, I have my sweater, the puck and that picture. And Glenn Resch, he signed his stick to me, and it was pretty cool.
Question: Who was your favorite Kings teammate?
Nicholls: Wow, you know I pretty much got along well with everyone. Jimmy Fox probably, was one of them for sure. Jimmy was the first winger I played with. Jay Wells and Mark Hardy, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor…..
Question: Any funny Jim Fox memories to share?
Nicholls: I always tried to scare Jimmy but I couldn’t. Phil Sykes and I used to hide in the guys’ rooms after pre game and try and scare them, but we never caught Jimmy. He was just a great guy and it was too bad about his knees because he was as good a goal scorer as any of them and he was just a lot of fun to play with. I guess I could tell you one. I’m not sure who we were playing and there was this one big guy who was just whacking me and Jimmy skates over and the big guy says, “What are you going to do?” And Jimmy says, “I don’t know……I’ll do something.”
Question: Any difficult Kings teammates?
Nicholls: Not really. Probably just the coach, Webster. Everyone else, I really got along well with. I don’t know if I ever played on a team where I didn’t get along with everyone.
Question: What about opponents? Any of them stand out as being more difficult to play against than others?
Nicholls: Oh man, there are a lot of those guys. You know we played Edmonton a lot and you always wanted to play against Gretz’s line, and you know you were going to get scored against but you were going to get the chance to score some goals yourself. It was tough playing against Mark Messier because he was so strong and physical. Guys like Joel Otto in Calgary too, and he was a big tough guy physically, and those guys were always tough to play against.
Question: What are your memories of playing at The Forum?
Nicholls: To me it was an amazing place to play, because it was my first rink. You go upstairs afterwards to the Forum Club and the fans could get close to you. I was treated great there. It was just awesome, even when I would come back there to play for other teams I was treated so well.
Question: Any strange interactions with celebrities?
Nicholls: Sure. A lot of times Bruce McNall would bring in Alan Thicke, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt (Russell) and Goldie (Hawn). There were always a lot of celebrities in the room. It was cool. They enjoyed watching us and it was cool. I remember when I was playing for Chicago and we came to Los Angeles and I scored four goals and Kurt and Goldie came down to the room and saw me and it was awesome.
Question: How about those infamous, long road trips for the Kings?
Nicholls: Yeah, that was tough. What was amazing is that when I got traded to New York, the players spent 30 more nights in their own houses, in their own bed than the Kings did. I mean we would go to Vancouver and it was a three day trip for one game. You go in on Friday, play Saturday and come home Sunday and that was our shortest trip. We’d go on a road trip for two weeks at a time. Even training camp. We went to Hull one time and we were gone for three weeks. That is just tough.
Question: How was it for you living in Los Angeles?
Nicholls: I come from probably the smallest town in Canada. My hometown has one store, one garage, laundry mat, and probably 100 people and I get on a plane and go to one of the largest cities in the U.S. You go from snow to palm trees. I’m going to the rink with shorts on. When I got drafted by the Kings I didn’t even know Los Angeles had a team (laughs). You grow up watching Toronto, Montreal and Boston every day, and here I go off to Los Angeles. It was very cool.
Question: I want to make sure and ask you what you are up to these days. What is keeping you busy?
Nicholls: Well, I play a lot of golf. I do a lot of hunting in the Fall. I go back home to Canada from September almost through Christmastime with my family, we do a lot of hunting together. I have a company right now, it’s called AllSportsMarket, which is in the process right now of getting approved by the U.S. government. The short of it is, hopefully one day you will be able to buy a synthetic stock of the Los Angeles Kings or the New York Yankees. We have actually met with the professional teams, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and what we hope to do with it is give them half the commission. Say you buy a stock in the L.A. Kings, I buy one for the Anaheim Ducks, the commission gets divided evening with the teams. It is 100% legal, it is like the New York Stock Exchange, it is not gambling – the team loses, you don’t lose your investment or anything like that. It is just like buying a stock and the concept is really cool. Once it gets approved, hopefully this Fall you can buy a piece of a team and feel like George Steinbrenner.
Question: How’s family life these days?
Nicholls: Well, I have a girlfriend here in Dallas, and she is a golfer. The bad thing is that we have to golf every day, and that’s fine (laughs). I have my two kids in Southern California, and my family like I said is in Canada.
Question: Your son and daughter are twins, right?
Nicholls: Yep. They are 16 and they just got their drivers licenses and my daughter has already backed into another car, so that happened a little sooner than I expected. They are great and it has been fun. I get to see them quite a bit. They always come home with me at Christmastime and then they come up in the summer and I get out to Los Angeles a few times during the year to see them.