From the Kings’ perspective, the best part of last night’s game probably came before the opening faceoff, when Bernie Nicholls was honored as part of the “Legends Night’’ series. My LAKings.com feature this week — link here — looked back at Nicholls’ career, and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation with him about his NHL years. I thought some might be interested to read all of what Nicholls had to say, so here goes…
Question: You’ve been able to stay connected to the Kings a bit, with the fantasy camp and making the trip to Europe, things like that. What comes to mind when you have this “Legends Night,’’ when you think about your time with the Kings?
NICHOLLS: “Even though I got traded and played for five other teams, for me, L.A. is still my team. 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. Like you said, going over to Europe, it was really pretty cool. It’s my team. I just root hard for them.’’
Question: People know a lot about your career, certainly some great offensive numbers, but there are a couple things I didn’t know. A big one is that you once played with your jaw wired shut. What happened there?
NICHOLLS: “I was very fortunate, because to me, pain was temporary. I could play with pain. In New York, I played with a broken foot. In San Jose, I played with a broken ankle. I had it frozen every night to play. In L.A., I broke my jaw right before the All-Star Game. I broke it the night before, in Calgary. I went to the All-Star Game and I played. It wasn’t until a week later, when I came back to L.A., that I had an orthodontist x-ray it and they found a crack. They wanted to wire it shut right away. I didn’t play the first two games. I think I got it wired on a Friday and we played Friday and Sunday, something like that, and I didn’t play. But then I played. I had a cage on, and I missed two games. I think I lost 21 pounds, and I was skinny as could be anyway. To me, I played no matter what. If you can play, you play. No matter what I had to do to get out there, I wanted to play, and I did.’’
Question: I ask about that because everyone remembers you for the big stats and the flashy play, but do you think your grit sometimes got underestimated?
NICHOLLS: “For the most part, I think that the guys I played with, they know that I loved the physical play. I loved hitting guys. I didn’t mind getting hit. I had no problem with that. I blocked shots. Maybe people from the East Coast, who wouldn’t see us play a lot in L.A., they would see me out there and I was always talking and smiling, but I had fun. I’m still a kid. When I go skate now, I’m still like a kid. I just love to play. I think maybe I was misunderstood, because I liked the physical part. I liked blocking shots. I played hurt. Like you said, when you’re known maybe more as a goal scorer, stuff like that, a lot of the little things, people don’t notice.’’
Question: I’ve heard the stories about your fashion sense. And certainly you weren’t alone, in the early-to-mid 80s, but tell me about some of the stuff that got worn on the road. Did you have a fashion sense that was a little ahead of its time?
NICHOLLS: “Yeah, I did. I loved the clothes. 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, Marc 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.’’
Question: You look at your numbers early in your career, and they were definitely nothing to sneeze at, with 30-, 40-goal seasons. But when Wayne Gretzky came to L.A. in 1988, what did that mean to you and to your career?
NICHOLLS: “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. 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. For me, I hung out with Wayne every day. People don’t know this. Every day after practice, we’d go have lunch. There wasn’t one road trip that we went on where I wasn’t with Wayne, every night. He was such an amazing player, and off the ice he was amazing as well. He treated me so well. And just the little things on the ice. Wayne would always say to me, `Big game.’ He would never be one of these guys who is up and screaming (in the locker room). He was quiet. I don’t think he said much to anybody, but he would just come to me and give me a little tap on the pads and say, `We need you tonight.’ He had my back every night, and you just wanted to play well for him. To me, it was just an amazing ride, to have the opportunity to play with him. That year, I also played with Dave Taylor and Luc Robitaille. They were my linemates. They were two great players. Funny thing is, I told Bruce McNall at the start of the year, `If you put me with Luc and Dave, I’ll score 50 goals.’ Which was funny.’’
Question: Did you have any previous friendship with Wayne before he got traded to L.A.?
NICHOLLS: “No. Just competed against him, but obviously had the utmost respect for him. I’m always a huge fan of greatness. I love the Peyton Mannings of the world. I just root for people to be successful. Sidney Crosby right now, I just love watching Sid play. He’s just amazing. Those guys appreciate the game. They work harder than anybody, and I just root for guys like that. Wayne was no different. He was the centerpiece of my sport, and I just rooted for him. Next thing I know, he’s my linemate, he’s my teammate, and I’m going, `Wow, this is unbelievable.’’’
Question: You had some good seasons before 1988, but I had come to you before that season and said, `You’re going to score 70 goals,’ is that something you could even have conceived of?
NICHOLLS: “No, not that. I was in the 30s (in goals), and I think I think I went 42, 45, maybe 47. Then I broke my finger one year, so it dropped. So I would say 50 (was possible), for sure, just because I was getting better every year. 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.’’
Question: And at some point in the season, I guess you get to 50 goals and you think, “Well, I’ll just keep going…’’
NICHOLLS: “Well, I scored my 50th goal in, I think, my 51st game. So I was going pretty good. I went into a slump there. I went about 10 games without scoring, but then I got it back. 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.’’
Question: And the 150 points, also, is something that nobody has come close to in the last dozen years or so. Trends change in the game, of course, but do you think we’ll ever see that again?
NICHOLLS: “Well, Sid last year, before he got hurt, he was on pace to light it up real good. You know, I don’t understand it. Because there are more power plays now and there are more 5-on-3s. I remember when these new rules came out, that first year, the Toronto Maple Leafs had over 50 5-on-3s in that one year. We never had 50 5-on-3s in my whole career. Nowadays, there’s a 5-on-3 in every game, and sometimes in overtime there’s a 4-on-3. To me, I don’t know why guys aren’t scoring more, because the opportunities are there. There are so many more power plays than we ever had. I don’t know whether they just play a little bit better defense, or goaltending. The goaltending that we played against was pretty good too. I don’t know. Last year, there were maybe one or two 50-goal scorers, and we would have four, five, six. But 150 points is a lot of points.’’
Question: That season, with 70 goals and 150 points, both of those numbers put you in pretty exclusive clubs. Does one of those stand out to you over the other? Do you take more pride in one, or are they equal?
NICHOLLS: “The 70 goals, I think. Obviously it’s harder to score a goal than to get an assist. I think the 70 goals stands out for sure. It was amazing. Funny story. It was maybe the second or third road trip that we went on that season, 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 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.’’
Question: I’d pay to see that, Bernie, a guy walking down the street in a pink suit carrying a hockey stick…
NICHOLLS: “I did it, for one whole year, and that’s because Gretz told me. 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.’’
Question: How many sticks did you use that year?
NICHOLLS: “Well, I used a new one every game. So in the morning, I’d tape up the stick I was going to use and take it home with me. In the car, I’d have it in the passenger seat driving home. Or when we were on the road, I’d take it on the bus and take it with me. It sat at pre-game with me, right at the table.’’
Question: You also became known for your goal celebration, the “Pumper-Nicholl,’’ as coined by Bob Miller. Was that fun for you, or did it make you any kind of a target on the ice?
NICHOLLS: “Well, I never did if we scored the seventh goal in a 7-1 game, or something like that. Like I said earlier, I was just as excited as hell to score a goal. 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. And I showed it. Bob, he named it when I did it, but to me it was just fun. I just loved doing it. I loved seeing a kid, whether it’s minor hockey or in the pros, when they score I love seeing guys get excited.’’
Question: Well, then the trade comes to take you away from L.A. Were you just kind of blindsided by that? It happens in the middle of the year, when you’re off to a great start again…
NICHOLLS: “I absolutely was blindsided. The funny thing was, it was after my good year. I had talked to the owner, because I wanted to be 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.’’
Question: And not only were you doing well, personally, but you could probably see that the team was maybe on the verge of something good…
NICHOLLS: “Yeah, and I wanted to play with Wayne. I could play my whole life with that guy, and it would be a blast.’’
Question: At the same time, you were able to go on to a long career and experience some different cities and different experiences. Did you find some positives in that?
NICHOLLS: “Absolutely. The greatest thing about playing our game is the people that you meet and the friendships that you make. I played in L.A. I played in New York, in Madison Square Garden. I played in Chicago. I played in Canada, in Edmonton, seeing the history there. The New Jersey Devils, wow, with Marty Brodeur, Scotty Stevens, Scotty Niedermayer. I was fortunate enough to play under Herb Brooks for half a year. To this day, I was more excited than anything to get into one of Herb’s meetings, when he would give you a speech. He might go off on anything, and he would have you on the edge of your seat. You would fly out of the room because he would have you so excited, so pumped up. He was amazing. So you get to play for guys like that, and have players that you meet and play with. Chris Chelios in Chicago. I never knew what working out was all about until I got to Chicago. We never had bikes or anything in L.A. We never worked out. I never worked out in my life. I get to Chicago, and I’m in the sauna with Chris and doing push-ups and sit-ups. Gary Suter, Joe Murphy, we were doing push-ups and sit-ups in the sauna every day. Those are experiences that, you can’t take those away. Those were fun.’’
Question: Now, these days, what excites you? What occupies your time?
NICHOLLS: “I spend time around home. I do a lot of hunting. I’m up (near Toronto) now to do some hunting. I love hunting with my family, my dad and my brothers. We have a camp up here, and we guide people. I travel all over to moose-hunt. I go up to the Yukon, go to Quebec. I play a lot of golf. I still do some stuff with the Kings, which I love doing. I do the Legends tour, in January, February and March. I do all of Western Canada. I’m doing a fantasy camp for Gordie Howe this winter, in February. I did Gretz’s fantasy camp last year. That was a lot of fun. So, I still do a lot of that, and play a lot of golf and stay busy.’’