Golf is much sweeter with a Stanley Cup in your bag. A championship ring eases the swing as well …
This is how former Los Angeles King player and current L.A Kings coaching consultant Bernie Nicholls feels. In a phone conversation from a golf course in L.A – Nicholls could not be happier as he prepares for his day with the Stanley Cup.
” I get the cup on the 1st of August. I am taking it to my hometown of Haliburton, Ont”. Says Nicholls as he directs his buddies on the course. ” I am planning to spend the day with my Mom, Dad, brother and Stanley. We are taking the cup to my minor league rink. The local papers and tv stations will be there along with hundreds of people I have forgot I knew!” He laughs.
Nicholls career is no laughing matter.
Drafted in the seventh round by L.A in 1980, 73rd overall – Bernie’s transition from a scoring sensation in junior to the big leagues was relatively easy.
” My first season, I had Jimmy Fox on my left wing and several players including Darryl Evans on my right. Jimmy and I played together for six or seven years. We had some real trying seasons in L.A but a lot of great memories.”
One of those memories was the first time Bernie played against his hero; Bryan Trottier of the New York Islanders. It was during his rookie season.
” I was a huge Islanders fan and they came into Los Angeles to play a game. I had every member of the team sign my stick. I still have that stick and Bryan and I are good friends. He’s such an awesome guy!”
Following two seasons of 41 and 46 goals,including a one hundred point season, Nicholls discovered himself playing on a team with Wayne Gretzky following the blockbuster deal with Edmonton. During the 1988-89 season, Nicholls became one of only eight players in the history of the NHL to score 70 goals. His 150 points the same season, places him among only five players who have reached the same plateau.
” People assume I played on a line with Gretzky – and that is why I scored all those goals.” Says Bernie. ” Luc Robitaille was my left winger and Dave Taylor was on my right most of the year. I played with Wayne mostly on the penalty kill and scored eight goals. Playing with Wayne anywhere gets you points!” He laughs.
Just as the Kings were about to shed their sad – sack image, Nicholls was traded to the Rangers in 1990 for Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom. Two players who contributed to L.A’s 1993 Stanley Cup run. Something which Nicholls does not regret.
” I had great years in L.A!” I got to play with the greatest player in the game. How can I look back and be angry or sad?” He says.
Nicholls was in his second season with Edmonton when Nicholls’ former team, the Kings, took on the Canadiens for the Cup. It was an Oilers career which got off on the wrong skate.
Bernie’ swife Heather was pregnant when the former Kingston Canadian was dealt from New York to Gretzky’s former squad following three years in the Big Apple. The then 29 year old was exchanged along with Louie LeBrusk and Stephen Rice for another legend; Mark Messier. Nicholls refused to report until he knew his wife and soon- to- be twins were fine.
” I think the fans were understanding of me wanting to stay with my wife. ‘Slats’ ( Sather) was not happy at the time but we had a good run in the playoffs. We made it to the semi- finals so he ( Sather ) was a little more forgiving.”
The one regret Nicholls has of leaving New York was missing an opportunity to play with Mark Messier. A player most everyone in hockey holds in very high esteem according to the L.A King record holder for goals in a season.
” Wayne was a quiet leader – the ‘lead by example’ type. ‘Mess’ was both. Vocal and led by example. The two were great in their own ways.”
A two year Oilers stint led to an encounter with another legend. This time, the icon was behind the bench. Nicholls was traded by the Oilers to New Jersey for Zdeno Ciger and Kevin Todd on Jan.13 , 1993.
“Jacques Lemaire was my coach in New Jersey. Obviously coming from the Canadiens’ system – Lemaire knew what is was to be a winner. Jacques taught me to be a complete hockey player. I learned how to play both ends of the rink”.
Being in the Devils’ system, a defensive one, did not stop Nicholls from being himself.
” Lemaire adapted to me and I to them.” Says Bernie. “It was a win – win situation. Any team including a defensive one needs offence.”
Bernie left the Devils just prior to the team winning a Stanley Cup. Marking the third time Nicholls exited a team prior to success. At no time did he think he was jinxed.
He signed as a free agent in Chicago in 1994-95 and two seasons later with San Jose . It was with the Sharks, Nicholls decided to complete an almost twenty year career in 1998 – 99. A career which did not include hockey’s most coveted prize. A career which ended with 1209 points in 1127 games.
Little did Nicholls know – his dream of winning a cup would be realized twelve years after he retired. Until this past season, Bernie had been working at the family hunting camp along with his Dad and brothers. The camp is in Haliburton, his home town. It is also where Nicholls resides with his wife and two kids; daughter McKenna and son Flynn.
Just after Christmas, with hockey forever in his blood, Nicholls decided to contact Darryl Sutter – the Kings’ new head coach. Nicholls had skated for Sutter twice before and developed a great relationship.
” The team had just finished a ten game homestand and were embarking on a three game roadtrip. I joined then as a special teams advisor on that trip. Darryl asked me what I thought when we returned to Los Angeles. I enjoyed it and was hired on the spot.”
Nicholls’ job consists of working with guys who need to hone their skills.
” I worked with Doughty and Martinez on their shots. Staying before or after practice to just kinda discover things they forgot. “
The main difference between the young players of today compared to when Bernie was young? Size, strength and speed. Bigger, stronger – faster. Aside from that, hockey players are still hockey players.
According to Nicholls – today’s players still have the same passion and ‘ win at all cost ‘ mentality he and his peers toted back in the day. The only difference; lack of respect …
” These headshots and blindside hits are deplorable!” Says Nicholls.” Some of the guys don’t care about each other. I think Brendan Shanahan is doing a great job with cracking down. The only thing I think is that a stiffer number of games for a suspension should be handed out. Torres for example. This guy is a repeat offender. I would have been happy if Shanahan had given him a fifty game suspension. I think that plus hefty fines are the only way to deal with dirty hits.”
Bernie agrees with coaching being a huge part of a player’s progress and cites Darryl Sutter as an example;
“Sutter does not believe in cheapshots. It is not part of his make-up. He instills this mentality with his team and look at the results. Not one guy was suspended on the Kings this season. “
Nicholls also believes in players taking responsibility for their actions.
” Eric Lindros is a perfect example. You cannot skate through the middle with your head down and expect not to get drilled. Scott Stevens was doing his job. He did not warrant any penalty for those hits.”
Another player Nicholls does not believe warranted any punishment was the Bruins’ giant defenceman; Zdeno Chara.
“Zdeno Chara should not have been suspended for his hit on Max Pacioretty a couple of seasons ago.” Says Nicholls.
” It was an unfortunate accident. If the hit happened on the boards and the stanchion was not there – it would have been a normal hockey play. Unfortunately for the kid’s (Pacioretty) sake – he was severely injured.”
Is the Los Angeles coaching staff surprised by the Stanley Cup victory? Not at all says Bernie .
” We came together during the season. A feeling of togetherness. When we met Vancouver in the first round – we had nothing but confidence. We beat them the last two times we played them and look what happened … Once we got going – we were good. We beat the hell out of them!”
Nicholls maintains a combination of ‘ peaking’ at the right moment plus Jonathan Quick’ s ability to keep them in every game – were large factors in the Cup victory.
” We never doubted. The young guys got nervous a few times – like when we got closer to the cup. It was normal but we prevailed.”
The only Kings’ alumni who joined Nicholls in the celebration was Jimmy Fox. A former player who still works with the team. Nicholls’ biggest supporter and fan of the team was his twenty year old daughter – McKenna.
” She’s a huge Kings’ fan and was by my side every step of the way. It was awesome to have her with me – very special!”
Nicholls’ son Flynn is not a hockey fan nor did he play the game which his Dad excelled at. Flynn is an avid guitar player and is enrolled at film school.
Perhaps Flynn should get out the camera and film his Dad, Mom, sister, uncles and grandparents on August 1st. He could chronicle what should be a heartwarming moment for the entire Nicholls clan.
Once Bernie finishes golf of course …
Photos courtesy of Bernie Nicholls.
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