Editor’s Note: In homage to “Who Wore it Best?” the NHL-produced series featured on both NHL.com and the league’s broadcast partners, JFTC continues its regular feature highlighting the top players to wear each sweater number in Los Angeles Kings’ franchise history. Check back to our first edition for a discussion of the selection process.
Prior to Wayne Gretzky donning number 99, the no. 9 was considered the most prestigious sweater in hockey. Many of the game’s all-time greats, including Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Gordie Howe, and Bobby Hull, powered Original Six squads while wearing le chandail numéro neuf. With that pedigree in mind, long-tenured Southland hockey fans will not be surprised to learn that 22 of the 23 players in Kings history to wear no. 9 were forwards.
The first player to wear no. 9 for the Los Angeles Kings was Real LeMieux. LeMieux, a left wing claimed from Detroit in the 1967 Expansion Draft, had only one prior NHL game under his belt before putting on the foil for 74 games with the Kings in their inaugural 1967-68 campaign. On Opening Night against the Philadelphia Flyers, he assisted on the first goal in Kings history.
LeMieux served two separate tours with the Kings. He was traded prior to the 1969-70 season to the New York Rangers in exchange for Leon Rochefort and Dennis Hextall. However, before that same season was over he was reacquired from New York (along with Juha Widing) for Ted Irvine. Upon his return to Inglewood, LeMieux wore the no. 7 because the no. 9 had been assumed by Forum fan favorite “Cowboy” Bill Flett, who had previously worn no. 17 for the Kings. LeMieux wore no. 7 until he was traded back to the Rangers (with Gilles Marotte) early in the 1973-74 season in exchange for Sheldon Kannegiesser, Mike Murphy (a previous “Who Wore it Best” honoree) and Tom Williams (Fun fact: Flett went back to the no. 17 prior to the 1970-1971 season, yielding no. 9 to the newly acquired Ralph Backstrom).
The only defenseman to wear no. 9 for the Kings was Al Hangsleben, the twelfth player in franchise history to wear the sweater. Hangsleben joined the club as a free agent midway through the 1981-82 season, appearing in 18 games and posting two goals, six assists and an impressive 65 penalty minutes. He was sent to the minors early the following season without playing another game, and sadly never made it back to the NHL.
Adrian Kempe currently wears no. 9 for the Kings and is in his fifth season with the club. However, during his 2016-2017 rookie season Kempe wore no. 39 because Teddy Purcell was wearing no. 9 at the time (Fun fact #2: Purcell wore no. 54 in 91 games for the Kings over three seasons beginning in 2007-2008. After stints with several other clubs he returned to the Kings as a free agent prior to the 2016-2017 campaign, at which time he wore no. 9).
Of the 23 skaters to wear no. 9 for the Kings, 16 were born in Canada, two in the United States, two in Sweden, two in the former Soviet Union (Vladamir Tsyplakov in Belarus and Konstantin Pushkarev in Kazakhstan) and one in Finland (Ilkka Sinisalo). Five apprenticed in the NCAA before turning pro.
Longtime Kings fans certainly won’t be surprised to learn that nearly all team scoring records for players while wearing no. 9 are held by Bernard Nicholls. It is little remembered that upon first being called up from the AHL, “Bernie” actually wore no. 15 (for one game) and no. 10 (for two games) before finally settling on no. 9. As noted in JFTC’s original “Who Wore it Best? feature, only statistics gathered while wearing a particular sweater number are considered in our rankings. Subtracting his stats from those three games, Nicholls nevertheless still sits far atop the team’s career no. 9 charts in games played (599), goals (327), assists (429), points (756), penalty minutes (763), game-winning goals (27), shorthanded goals (25), shots (2114 shots) and hat tricks (14).
Vladamir Tsyplakov has the best career plus/minus rating among those wearing the no. 9 sweater (+23). Tsyplakov also leads in career time on ice average (14:41), hits (1623) and blocked shots (1191). Adrian Kempe is currently averaging 17:57 minutes per game, a pace which would break current no. 9 single-season average time on ice leader Tsyplakov’s mark of 16:23 set in 1997-98.
As for single-season records, Nicholls’ legendary 1988-89 season tops the no. 9 charts. That season he posted still-standing no. 9 records for goals (70), assists (80), points (150), penalty minutes (124), shots (385) and shooting percentage (18.2).
Who wore No. 9 best?
Bernie Nicholls — (1981-1990)
If you polled the 18,340 fans — who in normal times would fill Staples Center 41 times each winter — on “Who is the leading single-season goal scorer in Kings history?”, I’d bet my piggy bank full of loonies and toonies that a large majority would instinctively answer “Wayne Gretzky.” Moreover, while some smart-aleck Baby Boomers might say Luc or Marcel, they would all be wrong. The correct answer is Bernie Nicholls, who lit the lamp 70 times over the 1988-89 season.
Nicholls was drafted by the Kings in the fourth round (73rd overall) of the 1980 Entry Draft. After playing one additional year of junior hockey, he made his professional debut with the Kings’ AHL affiliate in New Haven. After scoring a league-high 41 goals in 55 games with the Nighthawks, he was called up to the big club for good in February 1982.
Appearing in 22 games for the Kings that first season, Nicholls posted 14 goals, 18 assists and 32 points. Not only did he became the first player in team history to post back-to-back hat tricks, in games against the Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins that season, but upon his return to the Fabulous Forum ten days later, he put the biscuit in the basket three more times for a third straight home hat trick.
Nicholls scored 15 goals over the first 14 games of the 1982-83 season. However, a torn MCL temporarily forced him out of action and he finished his first “full” NHL season with 28 goals and 50 points in 71 games. The following season, he led the team in scoring with 90 points. In 1984-85, he hit the 100 point mark, trailing only Marcel Dionne for team honors.
Nicholls is the only player in Kings history (and one of only eight NHL players all-time) to score 70 goals in a single season, which he achieved in 1988-89. His 150 points that season (one of only five NHL players to ever reach that mark) places him third all-time in the Kings’ single-season point record book, behind only the Great One, who broke that mark twice. Nicholls also set Kings records that season for most shorthanded goals in one season (8) and for scoring the most points (and assists) in a single game, when he tallied two goals and six assists in a rout of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While Nicholls’ 1988-89 points explosion was no doubt influenced by the presence of Gretzky, it is important to note that because both players were centers, they played on separate lines. Thus it is inaccurate to say he just rode 99’s coat tails. In fact, in the three seasons beginning with 1983-84, Nicholls scored at least 95 points. He also led the Kings in goals and assists multiple times prior to The Trade That Changed the Game.
Nicholls started the 1989-90 season strongly, posting 28 goals, 47 assists and 75 points over his first 47 games. However, he was traded to the Rangers the night before the All-Star Game in exchange for Tomas Sandström and Tony Granato, leaving the Kings as the team’s fifth leading all-time scorer (currently he’s sixth). The Rangers eventually traded Nicholls one game into the 1991-92 season, sending him to the Edmonton Oilers along with two other players in exchange for Mark Messier, thereby setting hockey history in motion.
Nicholls spent the 1990s with multiple franchises, playing his final three seasons with the San Jose Sharks. He retired following the 1998-99 season with 1,209 career points (475 goals, 734 assists) in 1,127 games, as well as 114 points (42 goals, 72 assists) in 118 playoff games.
He currently lives in his hometown of Haliburton, Ontario where he is part owner of AllSportsMarket.com, “an experimental exchange where investors can buy and sell sports teams, just like traditional stocks, and earn dividends when their teams win or appreciate in value.” More importantly he runs an eponymous charitable foundation which will soon announce 2021 dates for “Weekend at Bernie’s,” its annual Vegas fundraiser, which I hear is legendary. Who knows? Maybe after sinking a long putt on the golf course you’ll see Bernie perform his legendary “Pumper-Nicholl” goal celebration.
Agree or disagree (seriously?) with the selection of Bernie Nicholls as the Kings’ “No. 1 of No. 9s?” Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or hit up Mark on Twitter at @MarkDevoreNHL. Stay safe, and as always, Go Kings Go!