By Darren Lum
Stories are powerful vehicles for inspiration and Bernie Nicholls’ path to joining the ranks of the best hockey players in the world has the potential to be an example of what is possible for future generations here.
Born in Haliburton and raised in the small town of West Guilford, Nicholls’ successful National Hockey League career is just one of many examples belonging to the inaugural group of inductees entering the Haliburton Highlands Sports Hall of Fame as individuals, builders and team members.
Nicholls had a 17-year NHL career, playing in 1,127 NHL games for the Los Angeles Kings, the New York Rangers, the Edmonton Oilers, the New Jersey Devils, the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks. He had three all-star appearances, and most notably, the ‘Pumpernicholl #9 scored 475 goals and tallied 1,209 points over his career, including a season to remember with a 70 goal and 150 point performance in the 1988-1989 season. He is just one of eight to score 70 goals and one of five to tally 150 points in one season. The fourth round pick and 73rd overall drafted player by the Kings after junior hockey stops in Woodstock, North York and Kingston. He played from 1981 to 1999.
Besides his professional hockey achievements, Nicholls played for the Haliburton Huskies Junior D team from 1975 to 1977, was a silver medalist in fast pitch at the Ontario Summer Games in 1980, and a silver medalist with the World Ice Hockey Championship for Canada in 1985.
When it comes to his major influences on the success he achieved in sport and life, he said, it’s owed to his late-dad, George.
“He’s being inducted as well with the 1970 junior hockey team and I think I’m more excited about that than myself. He was the biggest influence on me. He taught me everything about hockey, baseball. He was the best coach I ever had. I honestly don’t think the Junior D team would have won the championship without him as a coach,” he said, referring to hall of fame inductee 1970-1971 Haliburton Huskies.
“I just think there is so much that you’re taught and given guidance and opportunity to succeed and he was that for me,” he said. “I would have never done what I did without him.”
Even when he was lighting the lamp as a member of the Kings at The Forum in Inglewood, California in the 1980s, his heart always belonged here.
Nicholls, who returned to West Guilford from Las Vegas this September, said the importance of being recognized locally with the induction by the hall of fame is related to the value of acknowledging ones origins.
“I think it always goes back to your roots, right? This is where I grew up. This is where I learned how to play hockey, baseball, so I think when you get recognized in your home town in front of your family and friends I think it’s so much more rewarding,” he said.
At four years old, Nicholls started playing hockey with the older boys from the area at what was known as the ‘Tagalder Gardens’ or simply, the ‘Gardens’ on Pine Lake. It included his cousin Craig Stamp, who went on to play junior hockey and play professionally in the International Hockey League, and with a young Ron Stackhouse, who went on to play 889 NHL games and shared the West Guilford Citizen of the Year honours with him in 2019. He often played so long that he often came home with numb toes.
The hall of fame will serve as place of recognition of achievement, but it will also showcase what is possible to young people here and is consistent with the message Nicholls has delivered before.
“For me, I tell kids to play and have fun and, if your gifted enough to be successful, it’s going to come out and people will find you. I tell kids dream. Dream big and play hard and have fun. I think that’s what people will look at us [inductees] from a small town. I grew up from a little town of 75 people. If I could make it then why not the next person? That’s what I tell kids. Why not? Why not you? Right? Dream big. I think it’s great for kids to dream and do not discourage them from their dreams. Encourage to dream and help them. If they’re good enough then they’ll make it. At least, let them try,” he said.
Nicholls pursuit of finishing the NHL season with the best team wasn’t fulfilled as a player during his NHL career where he was committed enough to have played with an assortment of injuries from broken feet, a broken ankle and torn cartilage in his ribs. However, his connection to the game and the pursuit of the Stanley Cup continued after his playing days when he served as a consultant for the Los Angeles Kings in 2012.
That year he brought the trophy home, which is consistent with the league’s tradition of enabling the players and coaching staff of the winning team an opportunity to take the Stanley Cup anywhere with them in the off-season. Nicholls was all smiles on the visit, as he enabled opportunities for family and area residents to pose for photos with it at various stops in West Guilford, whether it was in town at the gas station, at the Nicholls’ family home, the family hunt camp and in Haliburton at the A.J. LaRue Arena.
In 2006, Nicholls was inducted in the Lindsay Sports Hall of Fame. Although any recognition is valued, he said, there is much more importance when it is from your home town.
“I just think it’s a great accomplishment. Any time it’s your peers or people they’ve recognized what you’ve done to get the acknowledgement of getting into the Haliburton [Highlands Sports] Hall of Fame you can’t ask for anything better than that,” he said.
Besides his hockey achievements, Nicholls also patrolled the infield as a shortstop, winning silver at the Ontario Summer Games in 1980.
“I may have been a better baseball player than a hockey player. I played all sports and I just loved them all,” he said.
He played in the West Guilford Men’s Fastball league from 1973 to 1976 and then the Haliburton Men’s Fastball League from 1976 to 1984.
The passion for sport and the outdoors came from his father, he said. His dad was also a strong guiding figure for many boys not so much with his words, but by his actions and his sincerity.
“He just put you in a position to succeed and I think that’s how my dad was with everything. He taught me the outdoors. He taught me hunting and fishing and trapping. One thing about my dad he kind of led by example I think. That was the key I think. A lot of times people say one thing and do another and he taught by example and led by example. He was quiet, but when he spoke you listened and he led you in the right direction,” he said.
The other inducted hall of fame athletes include Michael Bradley, Glen Dart, Donald Beverly “Joe” Iles, Marla MacNaull, Stackhouse, Lesley Tashlin, Anna Tomlinson and Jake Walker. There is also Linda J. Brandon, Albert John “AJ” LaRue, Lenny Salvatori, who are the builder inductees. The team inductees are the Minden Monarchs teams from 1956 to1958, the 1934 Haliburton Huskies and the 1970-1971 Haliburton Huskies.
An induction ceremony for the Haliburton Highlands Sports Hall of Fame inductees is expected this coming spring. It had been scheduled for this autumn, but was delayed due to restrictions pertaining to COVID-19.
With a career of highlights, Nicholls said, the best part was just making the NHL.
“I’m one of I don’t know how many people in the world that had an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League. It’s such a great accomplishment. Anything else that comes with it is, you know, icing on the cake. I mean, just having the opportunity to play at that high level was my biggest accomplishment,” he said.
The statistical odds of a youth hockey player being drafted by an NHL team is a less than a quarter of one percent and then only 0.02 per cent of them will play at least 400 games, which is the number to receive pension payments from the NHL. This information was discovered from a study by former Ontario Hockey League trainer, Jim Parcels in 2002. He observed close to 30,000 youth hockey players to find out how many would actually make it to the NHL and have a successful career.
Nicholls father died at the age of 77 in 2013, but he isn’t forgotten by those that loved him, particularly his son, who thinks he would be proud to know of each other’s induction.
“You know my dad wouldn’t say much, but one thing about my dad is I always knew where I stood with him. He didn’t have to tell me I just knew and, you know, he would have been really proud and I think he would have been more proud of me going in than him. Just like I am proud of him going in than me. He would never say it, but I would tell him the only reason I’m going in is because of him. I know he would be proud of me.”