Monday, May 27, 2024

Review: Bernie Nicholls (2022)

By Bernie Nicholls with Kevin Allen and Ross McKeon

It doesn't take Bernie Nicholls long to set the tone in his autobiography, "Bernie Nicholls." 

After a brief introduction to his life in the first chapter, Chapter Two is devoted to the pranks and practical jokes that he pulled during his hockey career. If that gets the idea across that this book is not going to appeal to the crowd that reads Doris Kearns Goodwin's books, you're on the right track. It's a slightly curious literary effort in that it has two co-authors; it's hard to know if the pandemic got in the way of the process of producing the book.

Nicholls was a very good player during most of his hockey player. He piled up some good statistics, compiling 475 goals and 1,209 points in 1,127 games. Those sorts of numbers have him on the fringe of discussion for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Nicholls broke into the NHL with a bang in the 1981-82 season, and stayed through 1998-99. He played for the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. The highlight was a 70-goal/80-assist/150-point season in 1988-89, but he was quite productive whenever he played. Injuries hurt him in the second half of his career, which probably kept him out of the Hall of Fame in the second half of his career. 

His life seems rather unlikely considering his roots. Nicholls grew up in West Guilford, Ontario, a place that almost could put the words "Welcome to West Guilford" on both sides of the same sign. It actually was about a mile wide, and Nicholls was related to many of the town's few residents. His home didn't even have a street address. The town is northeast of Toronto and west of Ottawa in Ontario, and it's near a huge provincial park so there was plenty of open space - and not much competition for ice time among the kids.

So let's take a youngster out of that area and place him in ... Los Angeles, where Nicholls first arrived in the NHL. Welcome to Disneyland, indeed. Nicholls became known as someone who could play quite quickly, and he also spread his wings a bit. His reputation for loud clothes quickly spread, and by his own account was someone who took his hockey seriously but also played hard off the ice. Nicholls points out that he stayed away from drinking and drugs during his life, but wasn't so resolute when it came to the other major temptations of the hockey life, gambling and women. There are a few stories in the book about betting on NFL games for example, a matter that might have caused some conversation had it comes out at the time.

It's hard to talk about Nicholls without bringing up the name of Wayne Gretzky. When No. 99 arrived in Los Angeles in 1988, he brought massive amounts of attention to the Kings. Gretzky couldn't have done more on the ice for the team, and he was a great boost for Nicholls. Bernie thrived as teams couldn't afford to worry about much else but Gretzky's play, which helps explain Bernie's 150-point season. Nicholls here explains about how the two men became pretty close friends, surprising in that they seem a lot different in personality. 

But a little more than a year later, the Kings decided to trade one excellent player - Nicholls - to the Rangers for two good ones in an attempt to add some depth to the lineup. After that first season in New York, Nicholls never had more than 25 goals in a season. The bouncing around the league continued through 1998. He did a little coaching for the Kings in 2012, and played a role in that team's championship.

There are plenty of stories about games, teammates and opponents here, and they are fine. There are also stories about expensive houses and fast cars. Nicholls' salary reached a million dollars a year at one point, and it's fair to say he got his money's worth out of it. He does spent quite a few pages near the end talking about how much he respected his father. That's nice, although Mom doesn't get the same level of attention, which is at the least interesting.

The book is a very quick read; I got through it in a day without much effort. As you might guess, it's on the superficial side. Nicholls' wife pops up only briefly in the narrative, mostly because of a difficult pregnancy that led to Bernie not reporting to Edmonton for two months after he was traded by the Rangers. The twin children don't come up much in the story. Nicholls did have a child die shortly after birth, and certainly that level of tragedy must have put all sorts of stress on the family. The couple split at some point after that. Nicholls writes here that he never went to therapy after that tragedy, and didn't want to discuss his feelings on the subject. "I don't talk about my feelings," he says in the book. That's his right, although it's easy for bystanders to wonder from a distance if that was the best course of action under those horrible circumstances. 

Nicholls didn't have many great team moments in his career, but "Bernie Nicholls" will supply some background on the hockey career of this very good performer. Just don't expect more than that, and the book will work as the story of a fish that wound up way out of the Ontario waters. 

Three stars

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