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Bernie Nicholls is the Happiest King

BILL PLASCHKE

The former star, now an unofficial assistant coach, has played good cop to Darryl Sutter's bad cop as the Kings make a run for their first title.

June 01, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • Bernie Nicholls helps conduct a team practice in New Jersey on Thursday. The former Kings standout may not do the "pumpernickel" anymore, but he's still smiling.
Bernie Nicholls helps conduct a team practice in New Jersey on Thursday.… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

NEWARK, N.J. — The Happiest King cannot be found on the roster, behind the bench, or even among the 126 names in the staff directory.

The Happiest King is rarely seen outside of the practice rink, rarely heard outside the dressing room, and still exists almost entirely in your memory.

Nobody with a crown on his sweater has ever scored more goals in one season. Yet no King is more invisible as he tries to prod this latest bunch into making a different sort of history.

Quick, show of foam fingers, how many knew that Bernie Nicholls was back?

"Talk about a wild ride," Nicholls said with an impish grin. "Wow."

Yes, the Kings' hotshot forward is back, 22 years after epitomizing an era with his flashy skating, his pumper-Nicholls celebration, and his unthinkable 70-goal season.

In a quiet move nearly five months ago, Nicholls walked out of a Canadian forest and a dozen years of hockey retirement to join then-new Coach Darryl Sutter as a team consultant, working with the talented but underachieving forwards.

How bad did he want to work here? He spent the first two months working for free.

"I was a King once, I wanted to be a King again, it was all fine," he said.

How bad did he want to stay here? He has lived in a hotel near the team's El Segundo training facility since Jan. 3, checking out when the team is the on the road, checking back in when they return.

"The only thing is, I can't get Marriott points because the team is paying the bill," he said.

How much does he appreciate it here? When the Kings won their second-round series against St. Louis, Nicholls ran downstairs from his press box seat, stood on the bench, and called his daughter. When they won the conference title against Phoenix, he posed for a photo with the trophy and sent it to everyone he knew.

Then, on Wednesday night, when Anze Kopitar scored the overtime goal to give the Kings a 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in the opener of the Stanley Cup Final, Nicholls ran down a tunnel and excitedly called his mother.

Can you blame him? Not once in his 19-year playing career did he reach this final series. Not once has he dared to touch, or even walk near, the actual Stanley Cup, because he felt he never deserved it.

For the Happiest King, the second half of his season has been second lease on a Kings life that was never this glittering. Call it payback for those nine years of struggling in front of 10,000 Forum diehards, for those nights when he felt nobody few people he even existed.

"When longtime Kings fans say that what's happening is a like a dream, I understand," Nicholls said. "I've been there. I felt it. I can't believe what's going on now."

It's hard to believe that Nicholls is part of it, and you wouldn't really know until you watched practice. He tutors the forwards. He sometimes shows them by skating in shootouts against the goalies. He's the one guy who is always smiling or laughing because that's his job — to be the good cop to tough Sutter's bad cop.

"I brought him here to be a liaison between the coaching staff and the players," Sutter said.

Sutter didn't actually bring him here. When Nicholls heard that Sutter was going to be hired to replace Terry Murray, he phoned his former coach during a bow hunting trip in southern Ontario and asked him for a chance to teach. Sutter, who didn't make any other coaching changes when he arrived, thought it would be a good idea to at least add some spark.

"I thought I could help out a team I loved," said Nicholls, 50. "Who would have thought it would turn into this?"

Sutter, who once coached Nicholls, gave him 10 days. Nicholls brought such energy and expertise, he hasn't been back to the woods since. For about two months, the Kings just paid for his hotel room and meals. Then, when they realized he could make more money leaving the team and working a fantasy camp and old-timer's tour, they put him on the payroll. But even now, he exists in the shadows, not officially a coach, not part of the roster, mostly just part of their heartbeat.

"He's sort of in no-man's land," captain Dustin Brown said with a grin. "He hangs out with the coaches, but he's not really a coach. He hangs out with the players, but he's not really a player. We're not sure what he is, but we all appreciate him for it."

Nicholls has been a technical expert when it comes to scoring goals, and he has been a welcome relief when it comes to cutting tension.

"There's always that little boy in Bernie, and players like working with him, because deep down we're all still little kids," General Manager Dean Lombardi said.

When Sutter scolds a flustered player, Nicholls is the one to later calm the kid down. When Sutter needs to show the team that he doesn't play favorites, Nicholls is the one who feels his wrath.

"Sometimes Bernie will pipe up when he's not supposed to, and Darryl will snap on him, and it will loosen things up," Brown said.

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