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Lord Stanley's Cup runneth over for Rochester native Nickson

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Rochester Business Journal
June 20, 2014

Careers, like hockey pucks, can take fortuitous bounces. Just ask Nick Nickson Jr., the longtime voice of the Los Angeles Kings, who recently broadcast his second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons.

Long before the Penfield High School graduate became one of the National Hockey League’s most respected radio play-by-play men, Nickson dreamed about becoming a disc jockey. Like his famous father, Rochester radio legend Nick Nickson Sr., Junior was going to spin Top 40 tunes. He was going to concentrate on vinyl records, not vulcanized rubber pucks.

The DJ dream was about to become a reality several weeks after he graduated from Ithaca College in the spring of 1975. The manager at Rochester rock ’n’ roll station WBBF offered him a full-time on-air job but then had to rescind it after someone in the corporate offices found a nepotism clause that prevented relatives from working at the same station.

“I was looking forward to working at the same place as my dad, who was in the front office at the time,” the younger Nickson said. “The news that I couldn’t take the job was a real downer. You think you have your foot in the door, and then the door slams in your face.”

With apologies to novelist John Steinbeck, sometimes the best-laid plans of mikes and men go astray. Nickson was feeling as if life had checked him face-first into the boards, but soon another door opened. Lanny Frattare, who would go on to broadcast more Pittsburgh Pirates games than anyone, was leaving his job as the Rochester Americans play-by-play man, and on the advice of his father, Nick Jr. submitted a hockey game tape from his Ithaca College days. Amerks officials liked what they heard and hired him. Nickson described the hockey action in Rochester for parts of two seasons before taking a play-by-play job with the New Haven Nighthawks—a Kings affiliate for a decade—for four seasons. In 1981, Nickson was promoted by the Kings, and he has been broadcasting their games ever since.

Hockey was an afterthought then in L.A., but that changed in 1988, when the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers.

“You can’t overstate the impact he had,” Nickson said. “Even people who didn’t know anything about hockey were aware of who Gretzky was. Once he became a King, he took hockey to another level in Los Angeles. There were only a few rinks in Southern California when I first got there. Now there are about 40 ice sheets, and that’s all because of Wayne Gretzky.”

The Kings’ success in recent years has taken the sport to an even higher level on the West Coast. Everybody loves a winner, and at a time when the Lakers have become decrepit and the high-salaried Dodgers and Angels have underachieved, the two-time Stanley Cup champion Kings reign in SoCal.

Two years ago, they won it all with relative ease, taking three-games-to-none leads in three of their four playoff series. The path to this season’s Stanley Cup was vastly more difficult, as the Kings had to overcome a three-games-to-none deficit in the opening round against the San Jose Sharks and win three Game Sevens on the road.

“It really was an amazing run,” Nickson said. “Here was a team that not only battled back from daunting deficits, but also gelled at the right time. The Kings finished 26th in scoring in the regular season but led the NHL in scoring during the playoffs. Go figure.”

An estimated 300,000 people showed up for Monday’s parade and rally in downtown Los Angeles.

“To see all those people in Kings garb was really something,” Nickson said by phone just hours after the festivities. “It’s even more impressive when I contrast it to those early years when the sport was still trying to carve its niche here.”

As is hockey custom, members of the Kings organization will each get a day with Lord Stanley’s cherished cup. Nickson said he’ll probably do what he did two years ago and invite a bunch of season ticketholders and ask for donations to foundations established in memory of two Kings scouts killed on 9/11.

“I like being able to share that sacred piece of sports hardware with the people,” he said. “It’s fun to see the emotions it evokes in people. You run the gamut, from beaming smiles to uncontrollable tears. There’s really nothing quite like the Stanley Cup.”

His turn probably won’t occur until the fall, and that’s fine with him because he’s looking forward to returning to Rochester in the coming weeks for his annual visit with his parents, sisters and friends. Although he left the Flower City nearly four decades ago, he still loves coming back. And people aren’t the only attraction. “I’m getting antsy for a Zweigle’s white hot, Abbott’s Frozen Custard and a Friday night fish fry,” he said, chuckling.

After a few weeks here, it will be back to L.A., and before you know it, training camp will start and the 60-year-old Nickson will begin his 39th season as a hockey broadcaster. He has called nearly 3,400 games and has earned the respect of fans, peers and the Kings organization. He is a member of the Southern California Sports Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Frontier Field Walk of Fame. The broadcast booth area at the Staples Center was named in his honor in 2006.

Not bad for a guy who thought he’d be spinning tunes, rather than hockey tales, for a living.

Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is in his 41st year in journalism.


6/20/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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