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By Stu Bundy

Nick has been serving it up and dishing it out as maitre d' of the Hot Stove Lounge for 26 years. And over that time he's seen a lot of players and entertainers come through the door.

Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Harry Watson, Tiger Williams, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler -- you name them, Nick is their friend.

Who is his favourite? "It's hard to say," Nick ponders. "Tiger Williams, Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark are different people, they are so down to earth...and Ian Turnbull, we're like family."

Born on the island of Cyprus, Nick headed to London at the age of 16, bussing tables at the Savoy Hotel for the likes of Prince Phillip.

He made it to Canada in 1956 and on his second day in the country, he landed a job as a barber. "But the long hair in the 60s put me out of business," joked Nick.

From there, he ran the Ports Of Call before joining the Hot Stove. "Nick has always been a real good guy. We had lots of parties with wives and family at the Hot Stove, and he always made it special," said Sittler. "The night I scored 10 points, Nick organized a real big celebration. It was good to see that they brought him over the to Air Canada Centre to keep the tradition alive."

One tradition that Nick stopped quickly was the throwing of shot glasses.

Tiger Williams and Bjore Salming were introduced to a Greek liqueur one night at the Hot Stove. Tiger found it so distasteful, he threw the shot glass against the wall, smashing it into a thousand pieces.

"Salming, thinking that it was some sort of tradition, smashed his glass against the wall too. Well that was it, everbody in the place had to have a shot and then throw their glasses. We broke every bloody glass in the place that night," Williams explains.

"So, the next day at practice, they try to stiff me with the bill for the all the glasses! I think Mr. Ballard paid for it."

Oh, if the walls of the Hot Stove could talk, what yarns they would weave.

Nick wouldn't share the really good stuff with me. That's the gentlemen's code. In fact, he didn't have anything bad to say about anybody, until I brought up the topic of Yolanda Ballard.

"She tried to get me fired more than once," scowled Nick. When Yolanda charged Bill Ballard with assault, Nick remembers the day a police officer came into the Hot Stove while Harold and Yolanda were sitting at a table. Yolanda bolted to the washroom, applied mascara all around one of here eyes, and came back crying, "This is what Bill did to me!"

Classic Yolanda.

"You could always count on Nick," said former Leafs general manager Gord Stellick. "With all the crazy stuff going on during the time when Ballard ran the show, Nick always understood what was going on."

Nick only has good memories of Harold Ballard.

"Everyday he used to come in for breakfast. I would open the door and say, 'Good morning Sir,' and he would say 'Get up here you damn Greek and sit with me.' Then King Clancy would come in and sit with us. Boy, we would have fun just talking and laughing. Those are good memories."

But the memories don't stop with hockey people. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bob Hope, U2, The Bee Gees, ZZ Top, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen have all enjoyed a cocktail or two with Nick at the Hot Stove.

"Mr. Springsteen was an openning act; he came into the Hot Stove and had lamb chops with us. He is a very nice man," Nick recalls.

And speaking of lamb chops, when Emmerson, Lake and Palmer played the CNE in front of 80,000 screaming fans one weekend in the 1970s, they called their buddy Nick, and had him barbecue 750 lamb chops for the group and their crew.

What's the secrect of Nick's success?

"Be honest with the people you talk to," he explains. "Life is like a mirror. If you keep it clean and good, then you will like the reflection when you look into it. That is very important."

Words to live by from the King of the Hot Stove.