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Bernie Nicholls: Concussion lawsuit is 'for the guys beside me'

During his 17-year NHL career, Bernie Nicholls scored 475 goals in 1,127 games with the Kings, Rangers, Oilers, Devils, Blackhawks and Sharks. B Bennett/Getty Images

Since retiring in 1999 with 475 career goals, longtime NHL center Bernie Nicholls has never strayed far from the sport he loves. Whether as a participant at numerous hockey events or as a member of the Los Angeles Kings' coaching staff during L.A.'s 2012 Stanley Cup title run, he has always stayed close to the game. That passion extends to his involvement with All Sports Market, an online sports stock market that allows users to buy, sell and trade shares in their favorite sports teams.

But Nicholls' enduring hockey legacy might be his involvement in a federal class-action lawsuit against the NHL over concussion-related injuries. Nicholls isn't the only former player involved in the lawsuit, which was filed in Minnesota in 2014. But he just might be the most outspoken.

We caught up with Nicholls recently to discuss the toll playing hockey for so many years took on his health and his reasons for suing the league.

ESPN.com: Have more former players approached you since the lawsuit was filed?

Nicholls: Absolutely. I'm not getting paid for this. I'm doing this on behalf of guys in the league who came before me or are a lot worse off than I am. There are two classes [of long-term effects]. There is class A and class B. I'm class A. I get dizzy, I have memory loss. But there are guys with CTE, dementia. And if that is caused by concussions, then [the goal of the lawsuit is that] guys are going to get help for what they have. I'm not. I'm doing this for my brothers.

ESPN.com: Are you concerned about misperceptions about the lawsuit?

Nicholls: That's what I don't think a lot of people understand. They know there is a concussion lawsuit and they think it's a money grab or guys are just going after the league for money. That's not the case. The reason I'm doing it is for teammates. Hockey, in my opinion, is the closest-knit group there is. We've always been taught that we play for the guys beside you. My battle right now isn't for me. It's for the guys beside me.

ESPN.com: You played with Todd Ewen, who was found to not have CTE after committing suicide last year. How much does losing players like him weigh on you?

Nicholls: The thought of how young some of these guys were, like Rick Rypien [who committed suicide in 2011 at age 27] does. They're just kids. I don't know why they did what they did. I don't know if concussions had gotten them to a serious depression, where they couldn't come out of it. I just know what guys [I played with] are going through. We weren't really taken care of like they are today.

In my opinion, what the league is doing now is amazing. I watched a goalie the other night get hit in the head, and right away he was out of the game. They're taking care of them. The doctors didn't just wake up a year ago and go, "You know what? I think if these kids get multiple hits to the head, it's going to affect them long-term." The doctors have known that for a long time. They just didn't look after us the way they probably should have.

ESPN.com: Are there specific hits from your career that stick out now, considering the health problems you've had?

Nicholls: I broke my jaw. I was never even diagnosed with a concussion. I went to the bench, they checked me out, I continued to play that game. Probably two shifts after that, I got hit into the boards, my head hit the glass and my jaw went out of joint. I could have easily been concussed twice in a row. But I was never even diagnosed with one concussion.

I hit a guy in Chicago one night and lacerated my spleen. Our heads collided, I was dizzy, skating around with no clue. I was never diagnosed with a concussion. Today I would have been sent right off to the quiet room.

I always took the advice from the trainer. They would tell me, "We can freeze this, you can play. At worse, you'll probably have arthritis." When you're talking about your head and your brain, that's a different animal. I can go with a little arthritis in my ankle or my wrist. But when you're talking your head, that's different.

ESPN.com: When did you first start noticing problems?

Nicholls: After I retired in San Jose, [Sharks general manager] Doug Wilson sent us up to Lake Tahoe. My kids and I we were tobogganing. We were just coming down the hill, and I rolled off with my kids and just got spinny. From what I know now, I got vertigo. I just had to stay on my hands and knees, waiting for that dizziness to stop. From then on, every time I would look up or lay down without a pillow I would get dizzy. I'd have to get my head up and get my balance. And my memory loss just seems to be getting worse and worse all the time.

ESPN.com: How difficult has the memory loss gotten?

Nicholls: It's embarrassing. Anytime I have to do any event, any interview, I will always tell the person to give me a heads-up. Call or text me an hour before to let me know we're doing it. Because I will forget. People I played with, I'll forget their names, and that's embarrassing to me. People say, "You're getting up there in age." But that's not right. I've had this for a long time.

ESPN.com: You were among the dozens of former players at the last game at Rexall Place in Edmonton. Was the memory loss a problem that night?

Nicholls: Yeah, absolutely. One guy, I was talking to him for a while and then I got a text and I saw his name. I had no clue who it was. I remember seeing a guy and I recognized him, I know him, I just didn't remember his name. I had to ask someone who he was. That happens constantly for me.

I don't think I'm going out of my mind. Hopefully I never get to that. As much as it is inconvenient and embarrassing at times, it's not as bad as what it could be and what other people have. If this is all I end up with, then I'm OK with that. I can handle that.

ESPN.com: Do you fear it could get worse?

Nicholls: Absolutely. I have been asked if I want to be tested [for CTE after death]. It absolutely scares the hell out of me. That the older I get, the worse this can get. If that is the case, I don't know if I want to know.