You can take the boy out of Los Angeles, but you can't take the Los Angeles out of the boy. This was apparent during a recent hair-mussing, hair-raising drive into the Windy City with Bernie Nicholls, the star center who has carried the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL's upper echelon this season.
"It's a top-down day," Nicholls had declared on emerging from that mid-March morning practice in the city's western suburbs. He wasn't kidding: The last time Chicago saw a springlike day this gorgeous, Ferris Bueller ditched his classes. After firing up the engine and folding back the roof on his 1989 hunter-green Jaguar XJS, Nicholls donned shades and a baseball cap and pointed the car east, toward his new home.
"That's my building," he said, pointing to a spot on the looming Chicago skyline while weaving through expressway traffic at a comfortable 75 mph. When the Blackhawks signed him as an unrestricted free agent last July, Nicholls rented an apartment on the 89th floor of the Hancock building. "Some mornings I'm looking down on the clouds," he says. "It's wild!"
You expected, maybe, a nondescript condo in Hinsdale? This is Bernie Nicholls, who gained renown in his nine seasons with the Los Angeles Kings for the flamboyance of his arm-pumping postgoal celebration—the so-called Pumper Nicholl—and the outrageousness of his ensembles, the most memorable of which was a hot-pink silk suit that turned heads even among the most-jaded denizens of the Forum Club.
He no longer wears the pink suit, and he has largely scrapped the Pumper Nicholl celebration because it grew stale. Now in his 14th NHL season, he has scored 437 goals, including 21 in this Reader's Digest version of a season. In addition to lighting up the scoreboard, he has lightened things up in the previously glum Blackhawk dressing room and is the primary reason Chicago, 19-9-2 and in second place in the Central Division at week's end, is one of the league's most-improved teams.
During his heyday in L.A., Nicholls counted movie stars among his friends, spent his days off at the racetrack and dated, among numerous other women, a Playboy bunny. You wonder how a guy famous for his rock-star lifestyle has survived in the league this long.
Then you learn that when it comes to Nicholls, appearances deceive. The leaguewide perception of him as an inveterate party animal is now as inaccurate as it is indelible. The only thing Nicholls is addicted to is his game-day nap. Though he still enjoys betting on the odd horse, he is a teetotaling family man with three-year-old twins and a wife of nine years. The only available dirt on him was dished by his wife, Heather, who says, "He's actually kind of boring."
Appearances deceive. No one who has seen Nicholls's ungainly skating style is surprised to learn that he was born with an inward-facing left foot that required him to wear a brace as a toddler. But as Dallas Star coach Bob Gainey says, "He's a deceptive skater. He gets there more than you think he gets there."
Nicholls cultivates an image as one of the league's nice guys, a smiling, on-ice chatterbox. "He'd be in the face-off circle saying 'Nice play,' " recalls former Vancouver Canuck winger Stan Smyl, now an assistant coach with that club. "I'd say, 'Bernie, why are you talking to me? I don't even know you.' Then as soon as your back was turned, he'd jab you with his stick."
Appearances deceive. A year ago the NHL's smilingest player was so consumed with grief that he could not do his job. His son Jack died on Nov. 19, 1993, six days before his first birthday.