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 this league."
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 he acts."
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.