Still A Kid At Heart, Bernie Nicholls Reflects On His Time With The LA Kings

Bernie Nicholls
Photo: LA Kings
LOS ANGELES — As they have done with so much of their very best homegrown talent over their 42-year history, the Los Angeles Kings traded away prolific goal scorer Bernie Nicholls, but not before he left his mark on the ice at the Forum in Inglewood, California, the Kings’ home arena during his tenure with the team.

The 6-1, 185-pound native of Haliburton, Ontario was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (73rd overall) of the 1980 National Hockey League Entry Draft. After his final season (1980-81) with the Kingston Canadians of the Ontario Hockey League when he scored 63 goals and added 89 assists for 152 points in 65 games, he found himself with the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the New Haven Nighthawks, to start the 1981-82 campaign.

In 55 games at New Haven, Nicholls lit up the AHL, scoring 41 goals and tallying thirty assists for 71 points, and was called up to the Kings to finish the season.

Although the Kings ended that year with a 24-41-15 record (63 points), they had a budding star in Nicholls, who scored fourteen goals and contributed eighteen assists for 32 points in just 22 games along with four goals in ten playoff games.

Like most young players, the move to Los Angeles was quite a change for Nicholls.

“It was a big shock,” he said. “You’re used to growing up in Canada where there’s snow and ice, you’re playing hockey outside, and then you come to Southern California. For the people who have never been out here and played, it was a great place.”

“There’s nothing better than coming out after a game and it’s warm out, there’s no snow,” he added. “It was good. I got called up and I remember flying in here, especially being from a small town in Canada, you come in and you’ve got palm trees and sunshine and you’re going, ‘wow, this is different.’ But ever since I came here, it was a lot of fun for me.”

That rookie season was just the tip of the iceberg for Nicholls, who went on to score 327 goals and record 431 assists for 758 points in 602 regular season games with the Kings.

Nicholls ranks fifth on the Kings’ all-time scoring list, he is fourth all-time in goals, fifth in assists, fourth in power play goals (100) and he leads the Kings all-time with 25 shorthanded goals.

In 21 playoff games with the Kings, Nicholls scored eleven goals and added twenty assists for 31 points, which ranks seventh on the team’s all-time playoff scoring list.

Photo: LA Kings
In his sophomore season, Nicholls led the Kings in scoring with 41 goals and 54 assists in 78 games. From that year through the 1988-89 season, Nicholls scored at least 32 goals, including two seasons with 41 and 46 goals.

Nicholls’ NHL career was really taking off. But little did he know that he was destined to reach even greater heights.

On August 9, 1988, The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, came to town.

In what many consider to be the biggest trade in professional sports history, Gretzky, along with Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley, was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, a first-round choice in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft (later transferred to New Jersey), a first-round choice in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft and an estimated $15 million.

Indeed, Gretzky’s greatness took the Kings to new heights, as he scored 54 goals and added 114 assists for 168 points in 78 games, leading the Kings in scoring and ranking second in league behind the 85 goals and 114 assists from Pittsburgh Penguins legend, Mario Lemieux.

Many of Gretzky’s 114 assists went to Nicholls, who scored seventy goals and contributed eighty assists for 150 points in 79 games, ranking fourth in league scoring.

To be sure, that season was the highlight of Nicholls’ time with the Kings. But he was quick to point out that he did not do it all by himself.

“It was a highlight of my career,” said Nicholls. “To do what I did, you need help. No matter what a person does individually, it’s not an individual effort. It’s a team thing.”

“Everybody says that I played with Wayne,” added Nicholls. “I played a lot on the power play and the penalty-kill, but I played with Luc [Robitaille] and Dave Taylor—I just had a good group of guys around me that allowed me do that.”

In the 1989 playoffs, the Kings won their opening seven-game series against the Oilers, but were swept in the second round by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Calgary Flames.

Like many former Kings, Nicholls regrets not being able to enjoy much success in the post-season.

“[He regrets] not going farther than what we did, especially in 1989 when we beat the Oilers,” he said. “We had such a good team that year.”

But Nicholls’ biggest disappointment from his time with the Kings was yet to come.

Nicholls was on his way to another solid season in 1989-90, scoring 27 goals and contributing 48 assists for 75 points in 47 games. But the Kings front office, mindful of how tough it was to get past Edmonton in the first round of the 1989 playoffs and then getting swept in the second round by Calgary, decided some tinkering was needed to strengthen their lineup.

On January 20, 1990, Nicholls was traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for wingers Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom.

While the trade turned out to be a good one for the Kings, as Granato and Sandstrom helped lead the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals in the 1992-93 season, for Nicholls, the trade came as a total shock.

“The funny thing is that I had just signed a new contract that year, so I’m talking to [then-owner] Bruce McNall,” Nicholls explained. “I wanted to buy a house and it was an expensive house. He said, ‘oh yeah, it’s a good time. Buy it. I’ll never trade you.’”

Guess again.

“We were at the [NHL] All-Star Game and I think it was [goaltender] Mike Vernon from Calgary,” said Nicholls. “He said, ‘I heard you were traded.’ I thought, ‘what?’”

“So I pegged Bruce underneath the stairwell and I said, ‘what’s going on here?’ He said, ‘well, you know, I think maybe we might’ve made a deal.’ They traded me during the All-Star Game.”

The trade not only came as a shock, but it was also a major disappointment.

“That was obviously tough,” Nicholls lamented. “You score seventy goals the year before, you’re playing with Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in the world. The next thing you know, they’re shipping you off.”

“Who wouldn’t want to play more with Wayne? I played a year and a half with him and I got traded,” Nicholls elaborated. “Man…I could play a lifetime with that guy. That was a big disappointment.”

Nicholls ended his NHL career in 1998-99, but not before he scored 475 goals and added 734 assists for 1,209 points in 1,127 regular season games with the Kings, Rangers, Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. He also scored 42 goals and tallied 72 assists for 114 points in 118 playoff games.

“If you have to get traded, I played in the greatest cities in the world,” Nicholls stressed. “I played in LA, New York, Chicago, I played in Edmonton—for any Canadian boy, it’s always fun to play in Canada, and Edmonton is as great a hockey town as there is.”

“I played for the New Jersey Devils,” Nicholls continued. “[Goaltender] Marty Brodeur—it was his first year and just watching him start out—arguably, he’s the greatest goalie of all time. It was an amazing team. I played in Chicago. [Defensemen] Chris Chelios and Gary Suter were guys who taught you how hard to work and I learned a lot from them.”

“The one great thing about being traded is the opportunity to play with other players and on great teams. You make a lot of lifetime friends.”

Despite the deep disappointment of being traded by the Kings, Nicholls has fond memories of his time in Los Angeles.

“My first game here was awesome,” he said. “The seventy-goal year was great, having an opportunity to play with Wayne was great, the way the fans treated me here.”

“For me, I still get a kick of going out and playing, seeing kids, seeing people,” he added. “The fans of LA have always treated me great and I’ve appreciated that.”

Speaking of memories, back when he was still a kid in terms of his NHL career, Nicholls was quite the prankster when he was with the Kings and his most memorable prank was one that ended up backfiring on him.

In 1986, the Kings held their training camp in Victoria, British Columbia, with their headquarters at the Harbour Towers hotel.

“The best story of all time was in training camp in Victoria—we always had training camp there,” Nicholls reminisced. “It was 12:30 in the morning and we had two, young French kids who were drafted. They were rooming besides me. Phil Sykes and I jumped over the balcony and snuck in the room to scare these two kids.”

“We get in there and I sneak over, and there’s two people in one bed,” Nicholls elaborated. “I sneak to the foot of the bed and I start screaming.”

But there was just one, tiny problem with the prank…the two young prospects were no longer in the adjacent room.

“Two elderly ladies got up,” said Nicholls. “These two young kids got cut that day. They sent them back home to junior and [the hotel] re-sold the room to two elderly [women]. Obviously, we scared the hell out of them.”

The next morning, then-Kings head coach Pat Quinn had heard about the incident and he was furious. But when Nicholls told him what happened, Quinn laughed.

“Pat was our coach,” Nicholls explained. “Having to go tell Pat—Pat scares you at the best of times—but when I started telling the story, he broke down and started laughing.”

Although Quinn found the humor in the prank gone wrong, the guilty parties did not avoid paying for it…literally.

Nicholls and Phil Sykes, his partner in crime, had to pay for the ladies’ room and their expenses. They were also fined $500.00 by a “court” set up by their teammates, with the money going towards the team’s Halloween party.

“That’s as funny as it gets as long as no one died or got hurt,” said Nicholls. “That was pretty funny.”

Nicholls was in Los Angeles in January to give something back to the fans when he participated in the Kings Fantasy Camp.

“It’s always been my favorite team, my favorite city,” said Nicholls. “Anytime I get a call to come and do something for the Kings, I’m on the first flight out.”

On the ice during the camp, Nicholls was clearly having a great time, skating in a game with the camp participants and some of his former teammates. Still the prankster, he was even picking up snow off the ice and dumping it over the glass onto unsuspecting spectators, including Kings Vision host Heidi Androl.

“I’m just a kid at heart. I still enjoy playing, so just having the opportunity to play was fun for me.”

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6 thoughts on “Still A Kid At Heart, Bernie Nicholls Reflects On His Time With The LA Kings

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  1. I worked at Benihana’s in Marina Del Rey during the 80’s. Bernie and his wife would come in all the time for lunch or dinner. He turned me into a lifelong Kings fan. He was a humble, good-natured man and could easily talk to anybody. Sometimes, the Lakers would come in too, but my affinity was towards the hockey as they seemed to be more down to Earth. Have always wondered what is Bernie up to these days. —Alex Shim Benihana in Marina Del Rey 1980’s.

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