There are no bad hockey play-by-play men, especially on the radio. It’s the same reason there are no bad lion tamers. The bad ones don’t survive.
“I was a sophomore at Ithaca College when I did my first game,” Nick Nickson said. “We were playing Oswego State or somebody. They dropped the puck and it went from D to D to left wing. I had barely gotten out who won the faceoff, and now the puck was down here. How did it get here?
“That was my wake-up call. I said, hmmm, this is pretty fast. When the critical things happen — like the goals — get them right, but even then it’s tough. In San Jose, I thought either Tyler Toffoli or Christian Ehrhoff scored. It was Milan Lucic.”
A guy like Nickson smooths out the most jagged job that sports talkers have. The Kings’ radio play-by-play man thus receives the Foster Hewitt Award, for broadcasting excellence, at the Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies in Toronto next week. That may be the very definition of talent: the knack of making hard things look easy.
In hockey, the subs don’t come to the scorer’s table. They don’t blow the whistle and say, “Now replacing Jeff Carter, here’s No. 11, Anze Kopitar.”
And Nickson is basically sitting at ceiling level, far enough from players to render them indistinguishable. Yet when the fourth-line center of the Carolina Hurricanes is out there, Nickson has to know him, even if he can’t spot the number.
“That goes back to preparation,” he said. “I know what the line combinations are. I probably prepare an hour for each hour of the game. I’m reading the TSN site, the team sites, anything to put together the pregame show and then the game.”
Nickson has done Kings’ games either as a simulcasting analyst next to Bob Miller or as a radio play-by-play man, for 34 years. That’s millions of words and, for a while, a multitude of losses. That changed, and the Kings’ Stanley Cup runs were picked up by the NHL Radio Network, and Nickson was heard throughout Canada.
That helped Nickson win the Hewitt, which Miller won in 2000. So did his punctuation of the Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup: “The long wait is over. After 45 years, the Kings can wear their crown.”
“We played Phoenix in the first game of the conference finals and Chris Cuthbert was working it for TSN,” Nickson said. “I saw him during intermission and he said, ‘Well, have you thought about what you’ll say when you win the Cup?’”
When fans tell Nickson they still have his call on their ringtones, that hits home. Few know how he was guided, almost involuntarily, toward that moment.
His dad, also Nick, was a radio personality in Rochester, N.Y. and worked 60 years in the business. He was the late afternoon DJ. The kids called to request their favorite songs.
The son worked on the Ithaca College station. His dad told him Lanny Fratarre was leaving the Rochester Americans to do Pittsburgh Pirates games. Nick listened to a reel-to-reel tape of a college game he had done. It was painful. So he took a razor and Scotch tape, and spliced together the good parts. He got the job.
Then the New Haven Nighthawks called and wanted him to broadcast. And run group sales. And keep season ticket-holders happy. And sell ads.
“I was the fifth full-time employee there,” Nickson said. The Kings eventually used New Haven as an affiliate, and coach Parker MacDonald became an assistant in L.A. When Pete Weber left the Kings, MacDonald recommended Nickson.
That was 1982, the Miracle on Manchester. Daryl Evans beat Edmonton in overtime, 6-5, after the Oilers had led 5-0. “I just yelled,” Nickson said. “I said, pass, shot and then just started yelling at Bob.”
Now Evans is Nickson’s spectacularly-dressed analyst. Unlike today’s easily fascinated young voices, Nickson and Evans sound as if they’ve seen it all, which they have.
Nickson’s wife Carolyn was a school librarian. Older son Nick played hockey at USC and works at Disney, and younger son Tim is studying for a medical billing certificate.
A sports career has multiple families. Nickson, Evans, Miller and TV analyst Jim Fox have spent a lifetime together. They know that broadcasting a hockey game is like trying to herd sound waves.
“We’ll get on the bus and somebody will ask how it went,” Nickson said, smiling, looking down on amateurs shooting pucks at the big rink in El Segundo.
“Somebody will say, ‘Well, it wasn’t perfect. But it was close.’”
Only pros like Nickson can know how close.
Credit to the Los Angeles Daily News who originally published this article