He served it up early and with Pumper-Nicholl. In a swirling Picasso of a hockey game Saturday night before a sellout (16,005) crowd at The Forum in Los Angeles, Kings rookie Center Bernie Nicholls scored a goal that helped his improved, if sometimes inconsistent, team to a 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. It was a typical Nicholls goal, short-range and opportunistic. Left Wing Charlie Simmer waded into the left corner with Montreal Defenseman Gilbert Delorme and the back-checking Keith Acton. There Simmer outmuscled the two Canadiens to get a pass to Right Wing Jimmy Fox. Fox's shot was stopped by Goalie Rick Wamsley, but Wamsley failed to cover the rebound. The puck bounced to Nicholls, and he converted the 6-foot gimme for the first goal of the game at 4:34 of the opening period.
Thereupon the exuberant Nicholls went into his unique Pumper-Nicholl, the most flamboyant postgoal routine seen in L.A. since the days of Eddie Shack's choppy-strided Night Train runs across the Forum ice. With his stick in his left hand and his right knee raised almost waist-high, Nicholls leaned back and drove his right arm through a series of emphatic pumping motions. "I've done it since I was a kid," he says. "I'm so happy when I score I have to let it out."
The 21-year-old Nicholls has good reason to be happy. As the NHL season nears the quarter pole, he is well ahead in the Rookie of the Year race. Not only did he lead the league's first-year players in points (23) and shots (58) as of Sunday, but he was also tied for second in the NHL in goals with 16. Moreover, largely because of Nicholls' near goal-a-game production, the Kings, picked to finish last in the Smythe Division by most preseason prognosticators, had an 8-6-3 record and were just three points behind the first-place Edmonton Oilers.
The dire forecasts for L.A. were understandable. In 1981-82 the Kings had the second-worst defense in the league, the worst penalty killing and an offense largely concentrated in one line, the so-called Triple Crown contingent of Simmer, Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor. But the addition of another consistent goal scorer in Nicholls has given Coach Don Perry, who replaced Parker MacDonald behind the L.A. bench in January, the luxury of "spreading our scoring over two lines."
A perfect example of luxurious living for Perry occurred Saturday when Canadien Coach Bob Berry paired his premier checking line of Bob Gainey, Acton and Mark Hunter against the Nicholls-Fox-Simmer triad, leaving the line of Dionne, Ulf Isaksson and Daryl Evans, who's filling in for the injured Taylor, a little working room. A little too much, in Montreal's view. After 37:15 of evenly played and at times breathtaking, if scoreless, hockey, Dionne took a breakout pass from Defenseman Jerry Korab and fired a 20-footer past Wamsley for a 2-0 lead. "Having Bernie definitely helps Marcel's line," said a smiling Perry later.
Perry, you may recall, is not a man given to wasting smiles. Most sports fans first heard of him late last season, when he sent Forward Paul Mulvey to the minors for disobeying Perry's order to involve himself in an on-ice fight. At Saturday morning's wake-up workout in L.A., the hot-tempered Perry expressed his displeasure at what he considered a desultory pass-skate drill by skating across the ice, smashing his stick over the boards and storming off the rink amidst a shower of splinters, ice chips and profanity. "And he never said another word about it," said Center Terry Ruskowski following that night's game.
Last year Perry set about shoring up L.A.'s defense by stressing sound back-checking by the forwards. He had the wingers come back deep to check and assigned the center to pick up the third man into the Kings' zone. Hardly the stuff of headlines. Five weeks after his arrival, he sent for Nicholls, who was starring (41 goals in 55 games) in the American Hockey League for the New Haven team Perry had been coaching when he was offered the Kings job. Nicholls hit L.A. like a tremor along the San Andreas fault. Over the final 21 games of the regular season (a player retains his rookie status until he appears in 25 games in a single regular season) Nicholls led the Kings in scoring with 14 goals and 18 assists. He also had hat tricks in three straight home games. Thus, Korab labeled him The Mad Hatter, though that moniker has given way to Pumper-Nicholl.
In the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Nicholls scored the winning goal in the fifth and deciding game against the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers. But that's not Edmonton fans' most vivid recollection of Nicholls from that series. Following a 3-2 loss in Game 4, Nicholls was sitting by himself in the locker room, stewing over the defeat. To no one in particular he said, "That Gretzky's a faggot." Edmonton Sun sportswriter Dick Chubey overheard the remark and included it in his account of the game that ran the next morning.
"He [Gretzky] had a few names for me when we played the next night," says Nicholls. "I don't blame him. I didn't mean what the words said, and I didn't mean he's a wimp, either. The guy plays 80 games. I was just mad." Nicholls says that he ran into Gretzky over the summer and that Gretzky doesn't harbor any hard feelings toward him.
However, the fact that Nicholls would even unintentionally sully the name of the near-sainted Gretzky bespeaks a brashness not commonly found in NHL rookies. "Bernie has more self-confidence than anybody in the world," says Kings Defenseman Jay Wells, who shares a four-bedroom house overlooking the beach in El Segundo with Nicholls and Evans. "It's a great party house," says Nicholls, whose curly blond hair and fine, almost fragile features surely aid him in what he says is one of his main diversions—the pursuit of girls.
Though not averse to the occasional soiree, Nicholls is at heart, he says, a "country boy" from tiny West Guilford, Ontario, where his father and uncle operate a hunting camp. Starting at age seven, Bernie tended his father's trap lines, developed what he describes as considerable hunting skills and acquired an abiding love for the backwoods. "It's God's country, the place I'll go every summer, and the place I'll retire to," he says. While Nicholls claims to like Southern California, he thinks of himself as "a lot more country than rock-'n'-roll." His favorite singer is Hank Williams Jr., and one of his favorite songs is fittingly titled A Country Boy Can Survive. His favorite outfit: black and white $250 boa constrictor boots and one of his Izod shirts—"You know, the ones with the little animals on them," he says.
Nicholls was recently piqued when an otherwise laudatory profile of him in the Los Angeles Times reported that he'd missed in his efforts to shoot a deer the day before departing his parents' home for the Kings' training camp. His annoyance stemmed not from the fact that the incident took place out of hunting season or from the fact that he was being portrayed as a Bambi-killer before the folks in Jane Fonda country. What bothered him was that, as he says, "I've never missed a deer. Never. Bear either. And coons? Coons are easier than L.A. girls. It's foxes I miss. Foxes are smart. They circle instead of running straight."
Much like the foxes who elude him in the Canadian bush, Nicholls is a circler and slitherer on the ice. He's constantly in motion in front of the opposition's net, usually on the open side. At 6 feet, 185 pounds, he's big enough to throw his weight around, too. "But Don [Perry] doesn't want me challenging the defense-men," says Nicholls. "On our line, Chaz [Simmer] does a lot of work in the corners. Fox and I are the snipers."
Kings rookie Goalie Gary Laskoski, who faces Nicholls at every practice, says, "He's great at getting you going one way and then shooting back across the grain." Adds Calgary Goaltender Don Edwards, "You can't go down and try to stop him because he has the composure to go upstairs. And if you stand up and don't play the angle right, he's still going to beat you."
If Nicholls Has a major weakness, it's his skating. He was born pigeon-toed, his left foot turning inward so far that he had to wear a brace for six months when he was two. "The foot never really straightened out completely," says his mother, Marge. "I think that's why he looks a little awkward when he skates."
"A little awkward," says Perry with a laugh. "He's so knobby-kneed he looks as if he's going in two directions at once. But it's not so much that he's a bad skater as he is a bad-looking skater. He actually has good balance, and he's moving along faster than he looks. But I don't care what he looks like as long as he can put the puck in the net."
Right now, Nicholls looks like a country boy who can do better than merely survive.