PITTSBURGH — Bernie Nicholls heard the trade rumors before.
He heard them last season. But he went out and scored 70 goals and figured he had done enough to be a King forever.
He heard them earlier this week swirling around himself and teammate Luc Robitaille. But Nicholls joked about them at first, even asking Robitaille when he was going to pack his bags.
There was no joking Saturday. Just shock and a chill down his spine. The joke was on him. The unthinkable became reality. The trade rumors became fact. Bernie Nicholls became a New York Ranger.
In a deal a Ranger official called the biggest in club history-- their Wayne Gretzky-level deal--the Rangers traded right wingers Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato to the Kings for Nicholls, the veteran center who last season became only the fifth player in NHL history to reach the 70-goal mark.
The deal ended an agonizing week of rumors and a tortuous day for Nicholls, who had to fend off an army of reporters in Pittsburgh for today's NHL All-Star game until he knew his fate.
Finally, at about 8 p.m., he was called to owner Bruce McNall's suite, given the word and put on the phone with General Manager Rogie Vachon, who was back in Los Angeles.
"He felt kind of bad," Nicholls said of Vachon. "He thought he was doing something for his team. But I told him I thought he got the raw end of the deal."
It seemed certain some deal would be made after the club managed only a tie during a seven-game span after New Year's Day and dropped to fourth place in the Smythe Division. After a loss to the Buffalo Sabres last Tuesday, McNall promised a big change.
But the one he delivered Saturday cut to the bone. He and Nicholls are friends and business partners. They went out together. They owned racehorses together.
"I had to weigh my own personal feelings," McNall said. "But as the owner, I have to take away the emotional feelings and consider what is best for the team. I hate doing it. There are great things about being the owner of a team. Wonderful things. But there are also some bad things like this.
"I have to weigh what 16,000 people (a full house at the Forum) want. The first thing is to win. The second has to do with individual players. This could be an unpopular decision. A lot of people are not going to like it."
Especially since the Kings' biggest need has been to shore up the defense. Scoring goals has not been a problem for the club, which has a 21-21-5 record. Preventing the other team from scoring has been another matter.
"As a team, we're brutal defensively," Vachon said. "We can bring in any kind of goaltender, any kind of defenseman. But if the forwards don't come back (and back-check), it won't matter."
"Bernie was a great playmaker," McNall said. "He was right up there with Wayne. But we still have Luc. We need players with speed, gut and fire. These players seem to make sense, age-wise and everything. They have the scoring ability, but they should also improve our defense because of their speed. We had too many of the same kind of players.
"When we came into the season, I felt we had a team with a tremendous shot at the (Stanley) Cup. I was wrong. We have an enormous amount of individual talent, but that doesn't necessarily make a team.
"If it turns out I was wrong again, we'll go back to the drawing board again."
Sandstrom is 25. A native of Finland, he is in his sixth NHL season. His best year was 1986-87, when he scored 40 goals and had 34 assists. Overall, before this season, he had played in 359 games and had 154 goals and 188 assists. This year, in 48 games, he has 19 goals and an equal number of assists.
Granato, also 25, is in his second NHL season after playing on the 1988 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Third last season in voting for rookie of the year, Granato appeared in 78 games, getting 36 goals and 27 assists. This year, bothered recently by a groin injury, he has been in only 37 games, getting seven goals and 18 assists.
The 28-year-old Nicholls, in his ninth season with the Kings, totaled 150 points last year, the second time he has been in triple figures. In 1984-85, he had 46 goals and 54 points for 100 points.
This season, despite nagging ankle and knee injuries, and a recent slump in which he has failed to score a goal in eight games, Nicholls is still third in the league in scoring with 27 goals and 48 assists. Only superstars Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have done better.
"Bernie has been great for us," Vachon said. "This trade has nothing to do with Bernie Nicholls. The team is playing bad and we had to make a drastic change. If he was a bad player, we couldn't get two good players for him. He's a professional. I'm not ever going to say anything bad about Bernie."
The talks between the Rangers and Kings began a little more than a week ago at a general managers' meeting in Florida. Neil Smith, in his first season as New York's general manager, felt compelled to make a move after his club went through a recent 1-11-3 period.
Smith brought up Nicholls' name to Vachon.
The original deal proposed, it is believed, was Nicholls for Sandstrom and winger Ulf Dahlen. When the Kings insisted on Granato, they got him.
And so, Nicholls, who underwent minor bladder surgery Friday in Los Angeles, flew all night to get to Pittsburgh for the All-Star game, and then underwent grilling all day by the media, found himself at an evening news conference, trying on a Ranger jersey.
"I saw Wayne do this," he said, referring to Gretzky's news conference when he became a King a year and a half ago, "but I never thought it would happen to me."
Out of the glare of the camera lights came a question: How would he like to be introduced in today's All-Star game?
Nicholls, the man who wanted to be a King forever, never hesitated.
"As a New York Ranger," he said, "because that's what I am."