The bright lights of Broadway and Tinseltown are a memory. These days Bernie Nicholls plays in rustic rinks from Medicine Hat to Moncton.
And he still has a smile on his face.
The “Pumper Nicholl Kid”, who was once traded for Mark Messier and scored 70 goals alongside Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles, now skates with the Oldtimers Hockey Challenge squad that pits former NHL players, including Hockey Hall of Famers, against local fire and police forces in charity hockey games across Canada. This season he joined the tour in Atlantic Canada, after previous stints with the team in Ontario and Western Canada.
You would think after 18 years of NHL travel, mostly from western locales, bus trips through the Maritimes would hold little appeal for Nicholls. Apparently not.
“Obviously, I like getting together with the guys and playing hockey but a big thing is the charities we support,” said Nicholls, before a late season game in Halifax. “When you see where the money goes it’s worth it. That’s the thing about NHL players, we love to give back.”
The Oldtimers Hockey Challenge is the most successful tour of its kind in North America and has raised over $8.5 million for hundreds of charities in the last 20 years. Past beneficiaries of the oldtimers tour include the IWK Children’s Hospital in Halifax, the British Columbia Firefighters Burn Fund and the Ontario Special Olympics, to name just a few.
Nicholls’ former Kings teammate, Hall-of-Famer Steve Shutt, has been on the tour for the past 10 years or so and helps recruit new players. With his trademark grin and enthusiasm, Shutt doesn’t seem ready to hang ’em up any time soon.
“You just keep on truckin’. It’s fun for us to just go out and skate and play,” said Shutt, who works for Cimco refrigeration in Mobile, Alabama. “All the guys that are here still like playing or else they wouldn’t be here. We actually had a couple of guys that have come out and done a tour and said, ‘nope, that’s not for me’. But then we have other guys that once they start playing, they really get into it.”
And part of “getting into it” is relinquishing the charter flights of their big league days for bus trips – albeit lively bus trips. On the team’s recent tour of the Maritimes, Canadian blues great Matt Minglewood and Hall-of-Famer Bryan Trottier entertained the players on board with guitar and song.
“It’s a special breed,” says Jimmy Mann, of the oldtimers line-up. “Today’s players, they leave the rink and go their separate ways. They don’t have the same team spirit as the players did in the old days.
“The guys we’ve got here are the old-school type. We miss hanging out, eating together, traveling…that sort of stuff.”
As much fun as the oldtimers seem to have, they do not lose sight of the main reason they continue to play a young man’s game.
“We miss being with the players, me miss that kind of stuff but it’s really about the charities…that’s why the players come out,” says the affable Mann. “We can get together, have fun, give a good show to the fans but it’s all about the kids and the charities… we just want to give back.”
While the rosters change from regions in Western, Central and Atlantic Canada, this year’s squad included the likes of Glenn Anderson, Dave Ellett, Tom Fergus, Dale Hawerchuk, Igor Kravchuk, Gary Leeman, Claude Lemieux, Jimmy Mann, Dennis Maruk, Rick Middleton, Dmitri Mironov, Bob Probert, Cliff Ronning, Steve Shutt Bernie Nicholls, Craig Simpson, Billy Smith, Bryan Trottier, Rick Vaive, Rick Middleton, Borje Salming, Tiger Williams, Gord Gallant, Claude Lemieux, Theo Fleury, Bobby Hull (coach) and Ron Hoggarth (referee).