TORONTO -- Joe Nieuwendyk’s NHL career spanned 20 seasons with five teams. He won the Stanley Cup three times in three cities.
One of those victories did not come in 2003-04, his lone season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That doesn’t mean that year wasn’t a special one for him.
“Growing up about 40 minutes down the road in Whitby, it was probably the highlight of my career, and I say that with all sincerity,” said Nieuwendyk, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night. “Growing up a Leafs fan, Borje Salming and Lanny McDonald -- that’s why this weekend has been so special. Just to do it for one season was incredible.”
Nieuwendyk is one of four new members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and all four have played hockey for a team in this city. Three of them played for the Maple Leafs, while Mark Howe spent a season with the Toronto Marlboros of the then-called Ontario Hockey Association (the predecessor of the Ontario Hockey League).
Each of them had different experiences playing in this city, but they all look back on that time with fond memories.
“I loved playing here,” said Ed Belfour, who was with the Leafs for three seasons. “The focus of the hockey world is here in Toronto, and I loved being part of that. I love it when everybody knows the game and talks about the game and the passion that you could feel in this city. All those rivalries with Montreal and Ottawa, leading up to the games you could feel the electricity in the city and it was great to be apart of that.”
Belfour backstopped the Leafs from 2002-03 until 2005-06. He was here for Nieuwendyk’s one season, and he also was Doug Gilmour’s teammate ... for one game.
Gilmour was a fan favorite in Toronto for parts of six seasons in the 1990s, and remains incredibly popular here. He returned to the Leafs during the 2002-03 campaign, but injured his knee in his first game back and did not play again.
“This was my longest-standing team, and this is what I still call home,” Gilmour said. “My years in Toronto were just ... I can’t say enough about the management and the ownership and my teammates and the runs that we had. None of this was possible without them.
“The fans here have been great through my career. You play for them. It is amazing when you go out on the ice here, like we did on Saturday night, and part of your getting ready mentally is going out on the ice and seeing the fans and their reactions -- it really gets you motivated. Believe me, [Saturday] night was the closest we’re ever going to get to that again. It was just great and I say thank you to all of them for the support.”
Howe was 17 years old when he moved to Toronto for a season of junior hockey. His team that year was very successful (47-7-9) and included several future NHL players, including his brother Marty, Bob Dailey, Mike Palmateer and Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau.
“I was here long before [the other three inductees],” Howe said. “I know Detroit is Hockeytown and I grew up in the States, but anybody, especially when you play pro, if you ever got to watch the morning skate at Maple Leaf Gardens or in the Montreal Forum, the tempo of the practice was just phenomenal. It was like game-pace tempo, and most coaches would have to cut practices short because you come into those building and there’s just so much energy and you’re so excited.
“I got to do that everyday with the Marlies. After a while, I got to work with the broom crew and I got to go down in the old boiler room and do my sticks. The Leafs were struggling at the time but the Marlies had a great year and we got a lot of great press. The people I boarded with, the Tanner family, were great people. If there’s a city that might compare to this is maybe Montreal for hockey history, but even to just be a part of it for one year was special.”
Nieuwendyk is connected to Gilmour and Belfour through previous NHL stops. He won the Cup with Gilmour in Calgary in 1989 and with Belfour in Dallas a decade later.
The Howe family will be in the spotlight Monday at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and for good reason. There will also be a special connection to the Maple Leafs and to this hockey-mad city.
“Felix Potvin and I lived about 30 feet from the [Maple Leaf] Gardens, so we would just walk out and just walk into our apartment,” Gimour said. “It was just so electric down there and we saw it all the time. It is just something that you can’t replace.”
Added Nieuwendyk: “This is a fabulous honor to go in with the guys I’m going in with. I played against Mark and I can see why he was a loved teammate and a competitor. I have firsthand knowledge of the other two guys, and I couldn’t go in with a better class. It is a thrill.”