This three time all star was one of the NHL's best kept secrets for much of the 1980s as he played in relative anonymity in Los Angeles until Wayne Gretzky's arrival. He clicked with The Great One for one of the greatest seasons in NHL history, but then was surprisingly traded to Manhattan. The long time Californian fan favorite became Broadway Bernie.
The Haliburton, Ontario native was drafted 73rd overall in the 1980 Entry draft after a good but not necessarily great season with the OHA's Kingston Canadiens. The Kings of course sent Bernie back to junior the following year for more apprenticeship which is something Bernie admits is the best thing that ever happened to him.
"Fortunately for me, I was allowed to spend one more season in junior hockey, with Kingston," Bernie said in 1985. That additional experience meant that when I did turn pro, a year later, I was really prepared. If I'd gone right into the NHL, I wouldn't have made it."
Bernie didn't make it right away either in his first professional season. He was sent to the minor leagues where he played with the AHL New Haven Night Hawks. Bernie tore apart the minor leagues, scoring 41 goals and 71 points in just 55 games before the Kings called him up for good.
Bernie made a big impression in his first stint in the NHL too. He scored 14 goals and 32 points in the final 22 games of the season, plus added 4 tallies in the playoffs.
In his first full NHL season Bernie couldn't quite keep up his dazzling pace, but by 1983-84 he really caught on fire as he and linemates Terry Ruskowski and Jim Fox gelled nicely. Bernie blasted in 41 goals and had 95 points. The following year he had what looked like would be his career year - 46 goals and 100 points, followed by a 36 goal, 97 point campaign in 1985-86.
After 5 consecutive 30+ goal seasons and constant flirting with the 90-100 point a season mark, Bernie, who celebrated goals with his patented arm-pumping "Pumper-Nicholl," teamed with Wayne Gretzky in 1988-89 - the Great One's first season in Los Angeles. In some respects it was a coming out party of sorts for Bernie too. He finally got recognition as a top player in the league after years of toiling in obscurity. Now he was in the bright lights and excelling at an unbelievable. With lots of help from Gretzky to be sure, Nicholls exploded to score 70 goals in 1988-89, as well as 150 points. He is one of just eight players in league history to score 70 goals in a season.
He was on a torrid pace the following season as well (27 goals and 75 points in 47 games - that would translate to 46 goals and 128 points over a full 80 game slate) but curiously the Kings felt it was necessary to trade their long time popular star to add more depth now that Gretzky had arrived. He was sent to New York in exchange for Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato on January 20, 1990. It was curious because one complaint in Los Angeles was that there wasn't enough players who were good enough to play with Wayne, so why would they trade away the one who excelled with him?
Though he had over a point a game in New York and became popular with the fans (they nicknamed him Broadway Bernie), he was quickly sacrificed in one of the NHL's biggest and most influential trades. The Rangers sent Broadway Bernie along with youngsters Steven Rice and Louie Debrusk to Edmonton in exchange for their Messiah - Mark Messier.
After one exciting playoff with Edmonton, Nicholls had lost a step in his game and become more of a playmaker relying on his reputation of past glories. The Oilers were looking to trim costs and inject youth, so they opted to move Bernie to New Jersey for Kevin Todd and Zdeno Ciger.
Nicholls unfortunately didn't fit into coach Jacques Lemaire's defensive trap system, so they let Nicholls sign with Chicago as a free agent. After two years he move to San Jose via free agency, signing a one year contract. Nicholls re-signed with Sharks in the summer of 1998 but by November they told him he was not in their plans any longer.
Bernie Nicholls announced his retirement on November 23, 1998. You get the feeling he didn't really want to though.
"I don't know what to say," Nicholls told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They've announced I'm done playing here. ... I don't know what I should do. It doesn't make any sense. I don't know how to answer any questions. I never expected it to be this way -- you kind of want to go out on your terms."
The San Jose Shark center ice man was pressured into retirement by San Jose Sharks general manager Dean Lombardi as he made it clear to Nicholls that there was no room for him on the team.
"I don't like having to trade players, or deal with contract holdouts. But for me to tell a future Hall of Famer that you recommend this ... I spent the last 48 hours agonizing over it," Lombardi told the San Jose Mercury News.
One would assume Lombardi made every attempt to find Nicholls a home somewhere in the NHL, but there were apparently no takers.
Bernie Nicholls retired with 475 goals and 734 assists for 1,209 points in 1,127 games with Los Angeles, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks.. At the time of his retirement, Nicholls ranked 32nd on both the all-time goals and assists lists, and 26th all-time in points.
Bernie Nicholls was a very skilled player, but was more of a goal scorer than playmaker, particularly in his prime. He relied on his linemates to set him up to use his strongest hockey talent - his shot. His shot wasn't the most powerful but both his wrist and slap shots were deadly accurate and released quickly. His release was the key to his goal scoring. He was an excellent one touch shooter and often had the puck flying towards the net before the goaltender could get set. His skating was not exceptional but his anticipation and puck sense were extraordinary.