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CROWE'S NEST

Bernie Nicholls turned job as Wayne Gretzky's sidekick into starring role with Kings

Gretzky's first season in L.A., 1988-89, was also the best of Nicholls' productive NHL career — he had a club-record 70 goals to go with 80 assists. His biggest regret is that he got to play only 1 1/2 seasons with the Great One before being traded.

April 19, 2010|Jerry Crowe

Wayne Gretzky ruined McDonald's for Bernie Nicholls.

More than 20 years ago, when they were Kings teammates, Nicholls says that he and Gretzky were nearly inseparable off the ice, Nicholls unexpectedly discovering the Great One's unwavering loyalty to a certain fast-food hamburger chain.

"Every day after practice: ‘Let's go to McDonald's and have lunch,' " Nicholls says. "I can't stand McDonald's now."

In virtually every way other than gastronomical, however, Nicholls relished their short-lived collaboration.

And why wouldn't he?

During the 1988-89 season, Gretzky's first with the Kings after the bombshell trade with the Edmonton Oilers, Nicholls morphed from proficient NHL scorer to prolific, netting a club-record 70 goals and adding 80 assists for a career-high 150 points.

"It was the opportunity of a lifetime," Nicholls says from his home in Addison, Texas. "I got to play with arguably the greatest player in the world for one year, and I took full advantage."

But the good times wouldn't last. Midway through the next season, in search of more skilled linemates for Gretzky, the Kings shocked Nicholls by trading their second-line center to the New York Rangers — after he'd rung up another 75 points in 47 games.

"I was devastated," says Nicholls, who blasted the trade at the time, calling it a "dumb move" by the Kings.

Nicholls would play an additional 9½ NHL seasons with the Rangers, Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks before retiring in 1999.

But the self-described "country boy" from tiny West Guilford, Canada, would never again approach the point totals that — along with his gregarious personality, outlandish wardrobe and signature "Pumper-Nicholl" scoring celebration — made him a fan favorite during 8½ seasons with the Kings.

He wonders what it would have been like to have spent more time playing with Gretzky, but he doesn't dwell on it.

He doesn't have the time.

The divorced father of 18-year-old twins lives about 15 minutes outside Dallas with girlfriend Jun Lee, a former San Jose State golfer who designs women's golf apparel. (The twins, a boy and girl, live in Laguna Niguel with their mother.)

Nicholls, 48, plays golf, dabbles in business ventures and is an avid, unapologetic hunter, spending three months in Canada each fall tracking bear, moose and whitetail deer.

In the spring, he hunts turkey.

"A lot of people don't understand," he says. "They think hunting is all about killing and it's not. For me, it's the camaraderie, walking in the bush, being out in the wilderness. . . .

"A lot of times you hunt and you don't kill anything, and to me there's nothing wrong with that."

Nicholls' father, George, has operated a hunting camp outside West Guilford, about 2½ hours north of Toronto, for nearly 50 years. Nicholls and his two brothers serve as guides.

"To me," Nicholls says of his hometown, which is surrounded by lakes and wilderness, "it's heaven on earth."

It's also off the beaten track.

"We have one store," Nicholls says of the town of about 75 residents, "one restaurant and one garage."

Remarkably, however, Nicholls successfully transitioned from backwater to big city in the 1980s, seamlessly embracing a Southern California lifestyle. Hitting Los Angeles "like a tremor along the San Andreas Fault," as Sports Illustrated noted when he made his NHL debut in 1982, the soft-handed center scored three goals in each of his first three home games, a hat trick of hat tricks at the old Inglewood Forum.

From 1983 to '89, Nicholls averaged nearly 41 goals a season, punctuating most by raising his right knee almost waist-high, leaning back and driving his right arm through a series of emphatic pumping motions. It was a routine he had followed since childhood, but the move remained unnamed until Kings announcer Bob Miller dubbed it the "Pumper-Nicholl."

Nicholls capped his Kings run by joining Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jari Kurri and Phil Esposito as the only 70-goal scorers in NHL history. (Only Brett Hull, Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne have scored as many as 70 in a season since.)

Gretzky, in his autobiography, called Nicholls "a great underrated center" and "my best friend on the team."

For all his ability, however, the free-spirited Nicholls may have been undervalued. Some misread his fun-loving personality for indifference, dismissing him as less than committed.

"He could give off the aura of being happy-go-lucky, which sometimes is misunderstood," TV analyst and former teammate Jim Fox notes, "but when it came time to play, his skill was evident and no one else had your back more than Bernie."

Also, Fox says, Nicholls could "think at the same level as Gretzky. He could see things other players couldn't."

Nicholls may have worn fur coats and a hot pink silk suit — "People laughed," he says of the suit — but he also played half a season with his mouth wired shut after suffering a broken jaw and once played in 267 consecutive games.

"I'll put my competitive nature up against anybody's," he says. "Anybody I ever played with understood my dedication."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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