You can take the boy out of Los Angeles, but you can't take the
Los Angeles out of the boy. This was apparent during a recent
hair-mussing, hair-raising drive into the Windy City with Bernie
Nicholls, the star center who has carried the Chicago Blackhawks
to the NHL's upper echelon this season.
``It's a top-down day,'' Nicholls had declared on emerging from
that mid- March morning practice in the city's western suburbs. He
wasn't kidding: The last time Chicago saw a springlike day this
gorgeous, Ferris Bueller ditched his classes. After firing up the
engine and folding back the roof on his 1989 hunter-green Jaguar
XJS, Nicholls donned shades and a baseball cap and pointed the car
east, toward his new home.
``That's my building,'' he said, pointing to a spot on the looming
Chicago skyline while weaving through expressway traffic at a
comfortable 75 mph. When the Blackhawks signed him as an
unrestricted free agent last July, Nicholls rented an apartment on
the 89th floor of the Hancock building. ``Some mornings I'm
looking down on the clouds,'' he says. ``It's wild!''
You expected, maybe, a nondescript condo in Hinsdale? This is
Bernie Nicholls, who gained renown in his nine seasons with the
Los Angeles Kings for the flamboyance of his arm-pumping postgoal
celebration -- the so-called Pumper Nicholl -- and the
outrageousness of his ensembles, the most memorable of which was a
hot-pink silk suit that turned heads even among the most-jaded
denizens of the Forum Club.
He no longer wears the pink suit, and he has largely scrapped the
Pumper Nicholl celebration because it grew stale. Now in his 14th
NHL season, he has scored 437 goals, including 21 in this Reader's
Digest version of a season. In addition to lighting up the
scoreboard, he has lightened things up in the previously glum
Blackhawk dressing room and is the primary reason Chicago, 19-9-2
and in second place in the Central Division at week's end, is one
of the league's most-improved teams.
During his heyday in L.A., Nicholls counted movie stars among his
friends, spent his days off at the racetrack and dated, among
numerous other women, a Playboy bunny. You wonder how a guy famous
for his rock-star lifestyle has survived in the league this long.
Then you learn that when it comes to Nicholls, appearances
deceive. The leaguewide perception of him as an inveterate party
animal is now as inaccurate as it is indelible. The only thing
Nicholls is addicted to is his game-day nap. Though he still
enjoys betting on the odd horse, he is a teetotaling family man
with three-year-old twins and a wife of nine years. The only
available dirt on him was dished by his wife, Heather, who says,
``He's actually kind of boring.''
Appearances deceive. No one who has seen Nicholls's ungainly
skating style is surprised to learn that he was born with an
inward-facing left foot that required him to wear a brace as a
toddler. But as Dallas Star coach Bob Gainey says, ``He's a
deceptive skater. He gets there more than you think he gets
Nicholls cultivates an image as one of the league's nice guys, a
smiling, on-ice chatterbox. ``He'd be in the face-off circle
saying `Nice play,' '' recalls former Vancouver Canuck winger Stan
Smyl, now an assistant coach with that club. ``I'd say, `Bernie,
why are you talking to me? I don't even know you.' Then as soon as
your back was turned, he'd jab you with his stick.''
Appearances deceive. A year ago the NHL's smilingest player was
so consumed with grief that he could not do his job. His son
Jack died on Nov. 19, 1993, six days before his first birthday.
While Bernie and Heather grieved over the death of their younger
boy, they were also relieved. Jack had been on life support since
suffering a stroke when he was seven weeks old. ``His living was
hell, his death was a relief,'' says Heather, who lives with the
twins, son Flynn and daughter McKenna, in Orange County, Calif.,
where her husband joins them in the off-season. ``It allowed us to
finally let go.'' She reflects a moment, then adds, ``I'll tell
you what else it did -- it saved Bernie's butt.''
In his prime, from 1983 to '89, Nicholls played in three All-Star
games and averaged 42 goals a season -- his 70 goals in '88-89
stand as a King franchise record. But after nearly a decade with
Los Angeles, he bounced around -- from the New York Rangers
('90-91) to the Edmonton Oilers ('91-93) to the New Jersey Devils,
where he landed on Jan. 14, 1993. One week after Nicholls reported
to the Devils, Jack slipped into the coma.
With his son hovering between life and death, Nicholls played
poorly. For the first time in his career he was frequently
scratched from the lineup even though he was healthy. Nicholls's
ego was further battered that spring. Against the Pittsburgh
Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, Nicholls, whose
hallmark had always been his ability to show up in the big games,
had no points.
Jack's death that November ushered in a time of professional
reckoning for Bernie. ``If I don't get it together and do
something,'' he told Heather, ``I'm not going to have a job in
He got it together. In L.A., Nicholls had been interested in one
thing: lighting the lamp. The Devils, however, weren't looking for
Nicholls to score 70 goals last season. In coach Jacques Lemaire's
regimented system, the center is required to help out his
defensemen, support his wingers and score. Nicholls did all that,
especially when it counted most. With four goals and nine assists
in 16 playoff games, he led the Devils to within one game of
reaching the Stanley Cup finals. It was this stretch of
superlative two-way play that caught the attention of other teams
and saved his career.
In what would turn out to be a costly blunder, the Devils decided
not to re-sign Nicholls. From the handful of clubs expressing
interest in him, Nicholls chose Chicago. The Blackhawks, for their
part, were fast becoming a desperate team. They had a gleaming new
20,500-seat arena, the United Center, to fill and hadn't won a
playoff series in two years.
The signing of Nicholls to a two-year, $2.2 million deal signaled
Chicago's willingness to experiment. After all, Nicholls will be
34 this June, and his goal production had slipped drastically over
the past three seasons; but beyond that there is a flakiness to
him that flies in the face of the organization's traditional
surliness, best personified by Bob Pulford, the gruff, frowning
Blackhawk general manager. Says Pulford of Nicholls, ``He's a
happy guy'' -- Pulford sounds like a member of the House
Un-American Activities Committee identifying a Communist -- ``but
he's a team man, too. As long as he plays hard, we don't care how
Last season Chicago was 19th in the league in power-play
efficiency, converting only 17.5% of its chances. With 11
power-play goals, second in the league, Nicholls has put the
batteries back into the power play, which at week's end was up to
a 29% conversion clip, far and away the best in the NHL. Nicholls
was expected to improve the power play. ``What we didn't know
about Bernie, what we've learned,'' says Hawk defenseman Steve
Smith, ``is that he's an extremely smart defensive player, a great
penalty killer. He even blocks shots. How many so-called finesse
players do that?''
As hoped, Nicholls has lifted the offensive burden from the
shoulders of All-Star center Jeremy Roenick. And he has also
introduced much-needed levity to the Blackhawks. ``During the
playoffs,'' says one reporter covering the team, ``these guys were
so tight they couldn't fart a BB.''
The power of Nicholls's sunny personality is on display in his
Chicago apartment. In a framed photograph on the wall of his den,
Nicholls and Wayne Gretzky are standing in the face-off circle,
where Nicholls has just made some wisecrack; Gretzky is breaking
up. Throughout the apartment are photographs of Nicholls with a
veritable galaxy of stars he met in L.A. -- Tom Hanks, Bruce
Springsteen, Kevin Costner, John Candy.
In a place of honor atop the entertainment console is a family
portrait: Bernie and Heather with their twins, who will grow up
with dim or no memories of the brother they lost just before their
Jack Jagger Nicholls -- Heather is a Rolling Stones fan -- was
born on Nov. 25, 1992, four days days before the twins' first
birthday. He was three weeks premature and had Down's syndrome.
But his condition improved in the hospital; he put on weight and
came home Dec. 18.
Five weeks later Heather took Jack to the emergency room. ``He was
fussy, and he wasn't eating,'' she says. After a seven-hour delay,
the doctors performed a spinal tap, to check for spinal
What happened next will be the subject of intense discussion in a
Southern California civil court this spring. According to Heather
and Bernie, who have filed a lawsuit against the hospital and the
doctors involved in the spinal tap, far too much of the baby's
spinal fluid was removed. ``As much as you would take for a grown
person,'' says Bernie. Almost immediately Jack had a massive
stroke, which left him brain-dead. He could not see or hear; he
took nourishment through a tube in his stomach. He existed 10
months in this state before passing away.
Heather has no problems talking about Jack; she says it helps her.
Bernie finds it more painful. ``He's not a person who's real open
with his feelings,'' she says. ``One of his favorite lines is, `I
don't let anyone in my kitchen.' ''
But what about his sociable on-ice demeanor -- How's it goin',
dude? -- which suggests an open invitation to join him in his
kitchen? It is a paradox, Heather agrees. She says her husband has
been misunderstood for most of his career.
When Nicholls was traded from the Kings to the Rangers in 1990, he
was dubbed Broadway Bernie by the Gotham press. ``They wrote about
the mansion we had lived in, the Rolls-Royces we drove. None of it
was true,'' says Heather. ``One phase of his life got blown out of
proportion, to his detriment, I think. Because it clouds what a
great player he is. He's one of eight players ever to score 70
goals in a season; he's scored more than 1,000 points in his
career. How many guys have done that? But people want to talk
about the pink suit.''
The previous evening, on March 16, Nicholls scored twice in the
Blackhawks' 9-2 humiliation of the Canucks in Chicago. Goal No. 1
came from a nearly impossible angle in the first period: From
eight feet out Nicholls calmly and deliberately banked the puck
off the leg pad of goaltender Kirk McLean and into the net.
In the next period Nicholls received a pass and carried the puck
across the slot. The nanosecond McLean began moving to his left,
Nicholls flipped the puck to the goalie's right, scoring on the
short side. As with the first goal, he beat McLean clinically and
casually. The two goals appeared to be the work of an extremely
smart, extremely skilled player at the top of his game.
Sometimes appearances do not deceive.