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Though not averse to the occasional soiree, Nicholls is at heart, he says, a "country boy" from tiny West Guilford, Ontario, where his father and uncle operate a hunting camp. Starting at age seven, Bernie tended his father's trap lines, developed what he describes as considerable hunting skills and acquired an abiding love for the backwoods. "It's God's country, the place I'll go every summer, and the place I'll retire to," he says. While Nicholls claims to like Southern California, he thinks of himself as "a lot more country than rock-'n'-roll." His favorite singer is Hank Williams Jr., and one of his favorite songs is fittingly titled A Country Boy Can Survive. His favorite outfit: black and white $250 boa constrictor boots and one of his Izod shirts—"You know, the ones with the little animals on them," he says.
Nicholls was recently piqued when an otherwise laudatory profile of him in the Los Angeles Times reported that he'd missed in his efforts to shoot a deer the day before departing his parents' home for the Kings' training camp. His annoyance stemmed not from the fact that the incident took place out of hunting season or from the fact that he was being portrayed as a Bambi-killer before the folks in Jane Fonda country. What bothered him was that, as he says, "I've never missed a deer. Never. Bear either. And coons? Coons are easier than L.A. girls. It's foxes I miss. Foxes are smart. They circle instead of running straight."
Much like the foxes who elude him in the Canadian bush, Nicholls is a circler and slitherer on the ice. He's constantly in motion in front of the opposition's net, usually on the open side. At 6 feet, 185 pounds, he's big enough to throw his weight around, too. "But Don [ Perry] doesn't want me challenging the defense-men," says Nicholls. "On our line, Chaz [Simmer] does a lot of work in the corners. Fox and I are the snipers."
Kings rookie Goalie Gary Laskoski, who faces Nicholls at every practice, says, "He's great at getting you going one way and then shooting back across the grain." Adds Calgary Goaltender Don Edwards, "You can't go down and try to stop him because he has the composure to go upstairs. And if you stand up and don't play the angle right, he's still going to beat you."
If Nicholls Has a major weakness, it's his skating. He was born pigeon-toed, his left foot turning inward so far that he had to wear a brace for six months when he was two. "The foot never really straightened out completely," says his mother, Marge. "I think that's why he looks a little awkward when he skates."
"A little awkward," says Perry with a laugh. "He's so knobby-kneed he looks as if he's going in two directions at once. But it's not so much that he's a bad skater as he is a bad-looking skater. He actually has good balance, and he's moving along faster than he looks. But I don't care what he looks like as long as he can put the puck in the net."
Right now, Nicholls looks like a country boy who can do better than merely survive.