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He Switched Lights On in Kings’ Surge

Everyone knows how the inspired play of a great star, calling on all his remembered skills, turned around the Kings hockey team last season, turned them from the NHL version of Holiday On Ice to the most dangerous things on ice this side of the polar bear.

You just have to hail this guy who went out and all but doubled his total in goals from a year earlier, who led his team (and almost his league) in goals, and who became only the fifth man in league history to score 70 goals in a season.

By now you’ve guessed whom I’m talking about. Bernie Nicholls, of course.

Wayne Gretzky? Who said anything about Wayne Gretzky? Come on. He had only 54 goals, didn’t he?

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Oh, I won’t say Gretzky didn’t help. His 168 points (goals plus assists) helped keep the opposition honest. But it was Bernie Nicholls who came in to light the red light 70 times. You can get two assists on a play. Goals come one to a customer. Assists are like the bunt in baseball. Goals are homers.

The moral is that Bernie Nicholls is a considerable hockey player in his own right. Even in a game where trying to decapitate your opponent is called “misconduct,” he holds his own. He once played the last half of a season with a broken jaw wired shut (in 1984). He couldn’t talk but he could check.

He was second in the league in goals-scored last season with 70 (Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux was first with 85). He was fifth in total points. He was one of the main reasons the Kings led the NHL in goals (with 376).

He was not the retiring type. He bashed 385 shots on goal in his 79 games last year. When Nicholls was around the net, the goalie thought it was raining pucks.

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Even when the Kings used to skate around the rink as if an organist were playing a Strauss waltz for them, and they were trying to get judges’ 9s, Bernie Nicholls was a threat. He threw in 46 goals and 54 points in ’84-'85. His 300 goals and 383 assists are third on the Kings’ all-time list behind Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor. They are nowhere near Wayne Gretzky’s gaudy career totals (637 goals, 1,200 assists) but whose are?

The renaissance of the Kings last season, from the Skater’s Waltz to the Stanley Cup playoff games, was nowhere near as remarkable as the wake-up call Bernie Nicholls left--from 32 goals to 70, from 46 points to 150, the biggest one-year increase in NHL history.

The addition of a major threat to a lineup is well known in baseball as a boost to more than morale. It makes the hitters on both sides of him more dangerous. They see better pitches. When Roger Maris joined the New York Yankees, the most home runs he had hit in a season was 28. With Mickey Mantle hitting alongside him, he hit 61. (And Mantle hit 54.) Almost every great hitter had a sidekick to help him soften up the pitching--Mantle-Maris, Mathews-Aaron, Gehringer-Greenberg. Pitchers can’t pitch around a whole lineup.

In the case of Nicholls-Gretzky, the pattern is complicated. They are both centers. Thus, they are not on the ice at the same time (except in certain penalty-killing situations). No matter. When Gretzky is on the ice, it behooves the opposition to counter with its best defensive personnel. Nicholls does not exactly get the second string. But he does get, so to speak, good pitches to hit. As witness his 70 goals.

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It’s not likely Wayne Gretzky will ever again be able to duplicate his 92-goal season of ’81-'82. The league now assigns “shadows” to the great one. This is like walking Babe Ruth.

But it is entirely possible 70 goals is only a beginning for Bernie Nicholls. A hyperactive strawberry blond who is not only in furious motion on ice but usually off it as well, Bernie has been on skates since he was in booties. His first pair of shoes had blades on the bottom. He could skate before he could walk, and as soon as the ponds froze over in his native Guilford, Ont. (about August 5 or so), little Bernie would be on them. The puck was a tennis ball, the sticks were cut down and taped rejects or even tree limbs. Since it gets dark in Guilford about noon in winter, Bernie played by the swaying light of two electric bulbs hitched to a car generator. If the lights ever get dim in the Forum next season, Bernie Nicholls will become the new Maurice the Rocket.

He might anyway. He is already being hailed as a coming superstar. Sunday night at the Century Plaza, he shares a podium with the likes of Magic Johnson, Orel Hershiser, Tim Brown and Dick Butkus as athletes of the year in their sports at the fourth annual Sports Spectacular to benefit Cedars-Sinai Hospital. When you double your offensive output in a year, the least they can do is buy you dinner.

But the league may give him more than a trophy of his own next year. They may get him his very own shadow. And take their chances with Wayne What’s-His-Name.

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