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Cruising with Nicholls

Cruising with Nicholls

Ex-NHL star reminisces about ‘85 Worlds, L.A. memories

Published 22.02.2015 16:10 GMT+1 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Cruising with Nicholls
Bernie Nicholls, who won silver with Canada at the 1985 Worlds in Prague, plays street hockey on a recent Cuba Cruise trip. Photo: Lucas Aykroyd
Thirty years ago, Bernie Nicholls went to a socialist country. This year, the man who ranks 44th in all-time NHL scoring did that again – in a hotter setting. caught up with Nicholls, who won a silver medal with Canada at the 1985 IIHF World Championship in Czechoslovakia, on a week-long cruise around Cuba.

Organized by the Calgary-based company Cuba Cruise, the theme was (fittingly or incongruously enough) “Hockey Night in Cuba”. It featured five retired NHLers as special guests, also including former 51-goal scorer Gary Leeman (1983 WJC bronze, 1984 WJC), Jack Valiquette, Dave Hutchison, and Ric Nattress.

Despite being surrounded by such distractions as rum, Habano cigars, and old American cars, the 53-year-old centre for six NHL clubs still clearly recalled his lone appearance at the Worlds. Often a linemate of Vancouver’s Tony Tanti and Hartford’s Kevin Dineen, the-then Los Angeles star chipped in two assists in 10 games in Prague. (The Czech capital will co-host the Worlds again this year with Ostrava.)

“It was the first time I ever played with Mario Lemieux, which was awesome,” Nicholls told “I think that’s one of the great things about international competition. You get to play with different guys, not your own (club) team. I also played with Steve Yzerman, one of my favourite players of all time. Being over there, playing for your country... there’s nothing better than that. We got the silver medal, which was fun. It was a great time.”

This Canadian team was loaded with future Hall of Famers. Like Lemieux and Yzerman, Hartford centre Ron Francis would prove to be a top-10 all-time NHL scorer (fourth overall with 1798 points). The defence included such future winners of multiple Cups as Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy.

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In retrospect, it’s not that surprising that the Canadians pulled off a stupendous feat: ending the Soviet Union’s all-time record World Championship undefeated streak at 47 games.

In the preliminary round, Canada fell 9-1 to coach Viktor Tikhonov’s “Big Red Machine” with the famous “Green Unit” of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, and Alexei Kasatonov. But on May Day, it was 3-1 Canada, and Lemieux led the way with two goals. Goalie Pat Riggin shone as the Soviets outshot Canada 31-17.

“We knew what we were up against going into it,” Nicholls said. “They were big-time favourites against us. To beat them over there was something. They were a very talented hockey team. Canada and Russia – people want to think it’s the U.S. we have our biggest rivalry against. But it’s been more the Russians than anything, because we’ve had a longer history with them. The U.S. is kinda just starting to get better. They’ve obviously got a lot of tremendous players now. But back in the day, Russia and Canada had the best rivalry.”

Czechoslovakia beat Canada 5-3 two days later to win the gold. But just four years later, Nicholls would pull off some individual achievements that few others are ever likely to match.

The Haliburton, Ontario-born forward scored 70 goals and 150 points in 1988-89, Wayne Gretzky’s first season with Los Angeles after the Edmonton Oilers traded him in the most famous deal in NHL history.

Nicholls is one of just eight NHL players in history to notch 70 or more goals in one season. The others are Gretzky, Brett Hull, Lemieux, Teemu Selanne, Phil Esposito, Alexander Mogilny, and Jari Kurri. Even more remarkably, only five players in league history have achieved 150 points or more: Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, and Phil Esposito.

That’s certifiably legendary company, especially for a player who was drafted in the fourth round (73rd overall) by Los Angeles. How did it happen for Nicholls?

“Everything came together. For me, every year I got better as a player. That’s what you want. I think having an opportunity to play with Wayne was obviously very special. We were both centremen, so I didn’t play on the same line as him. But we played the power play together. I probably had over 20 power-play goals that year. We killed penalties together and I had eight shorthanded goals. Just playing with Wayne was special. I’ve always said great players bring the best out of everybody.”

On that note, who was Nicholls’ favourite teammate, and who was his toughest opponent?

“I thought Chris Chelios was awesome. He kind of taught me how to work out and train off the ice in 1995 when I was in Chicago. We do Wayne Gretzky’s fantasy camp, and Chris is still in great shape. Probably the fiercest competitor that I played against was Mark Messier. Mark was in Edmonton when I was in L.A., and we had some great rivalries. When I went to New Jersey, he was in New York. We met in that big playoff series the year they won the Cup [1994]. Game Seven, double overtime, finals. I have the utmost respect for Mark. I think he’s amazing, but I hated playing against him every night.”

Shifty, savvy, and sometimes chippy himself as a player, Nicholls doubts that NHL scoring will ever again reach the heights it did in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

“Goaltenders are so good now. They’re so big and so athletic. I was fortunate to work with the Kings for a couple of years when they won their first Cup, and Jonathan Quick is like 220 pounds. His legs are like linebackers. And you can’t score on him low. Goalies are such great athletes now. And that’s no disrespect to the guys before. But I remember playing against some goalies who were 5-7, 5-8, like Darren Pang. You shoot over his head and it’s in the net. Now you’ve got guys who are 6-5, like Pekka Rinne in Nashville. There’s no room to shoot.”

Working as a consultant during the Kings’ 2012 Cup run was a lot of fun for Nicholls, who said he related well to stars like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty.

“I was on the ice every day with them. I actually hung out with the players more than the coaches. Darryl Sutter kind of liked that better anyway. He was kind of hard on them, and he understood that I had a good feel for the players. Working with Drew Doughty, he’s just an amazing player. Sometimes it’s easier for a player to come up to a former player rather than go to the coach and talk about anything. They’re more nervous with the coach.”

Nicholls has continued shooting for new targets in retirement. He spends half the year hunting in Ontario with his brother. He is also part of a class-action concussion lawsuit involving ex-NHLers. He got married in September, and will spend the rest of the winter with his wife Jill in Las Vegas.

Even more so than Cuba, Sin City is a long way from Czechoslovakia in 1985. What does Nicholls think about Vegas’s just-launched bid to land an NHL franchise?

“I’m all in favour of expansion anywhere. If you go to places like Florida or Carolina where they get 5,000 or 6,000 fans a night, you could go to five cities in Canada, southern Ontario, and you’d get 12,000 or 15,000 every night. Anywhere that it’s supported, I’m all for it. And I think Vegas would. I think it would be a great place for people to play and fans to come in. I know Wayne Gretzky is pretty close to Bill Foley, who’s trying to get the team. He seems like a super guy. I hope he gets it. It’d be great.”


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