"He was like a ghost out there," Mike Babcock told NHL.com. "He would just arrive when you wouldn't expect it and make plays."
Bobby Orr opened the ice for skating defensemen in the 1970s, forever changing the way the game would be played during his Hall of Fame career. Paul Coffey followed Orr in the 1980s, carrying his fluid style through two decades of dominance that was good enough to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame as well.
Niedermayer's skating was so smooth that he fell in line behind Orr and Coffey after he got to the New Jersey Devils in 1992 following a junior career that saw him win gold at the 1991 IIHF World Junior Championship and the Memorial Cup with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League in 1992.
He'd go on to win every team trophy he could, including the Stanley Cup four times (1995, 2000, 2003, 2007), two Olympic gold medals (2002, 2010), gold at the 2004 World Championship and gold at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. Niedermayer also took home the Norris Trophy in 2004 and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2007 after winning the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks.
"He was born to win and that's what you want to live up to," Ducks forward Corey Perry told NHL.com.
However, Niedermayer's path to the Hall of Fame, where he will be enshrined Monday in Toronto with the rest of the Class of 2013, was bumpy at the beginning because he had to determine how to make his style work within the defensive system the Devils were playing under coach Jacques Lemaire.
It was the first great challenge in the NHL for one of the most decorated players in the history of the sport.
|The Devils retired Niedermayer's No. 27 on Dec. 16, 2011. (Getty Images) |
The New Jersey years
Niedermayer had a way he wanted to play. It wasn't the Devils way.
"I always thought, quite honestly, that he would end up maybe as the one of the most underrated defensemen when I was watching him come up because he was playing in the most defensive system," Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch told NHL.com. "Marty [Brodeur] would play the puck and it would go right up to the forwards so they didn't need the offense from him."
That style might not have helped Niedermayer individually, but the Devils advanced to the Eastern Conference Final in 1994 and won the Stanley Cup in 1995.
"It's really tough to complain about anything at that point," Niedermayer told NHL.com.
But he still wanted to play his way, so Niedermayer and Lemaire would clash. Niedermayer was frustrated and Lemaire wasn't going to change his ways or alter his beliefs.
"We definitely butted heads," Niedermayer said.
Lemaire would win those battles, but it didn't stop Niedermayer from feeling that he was being restrained, almost like there was a rope attached to his back that wouldn't allow him to do the things he wanted to do.
The Devils wanted it that way. They admired Niedermayer too much to allow him to be one-dimensional.
"Nieder thought the game so well and he thought the game differently than other people did, and you never want to change a guy's skills and he had great skills," Larry Robinson, who was Lemaire's assistant in charge of the defensemen from 1993-95, told NHL.com. "I just tried to maybe hone his skills a little bit more to make sure he wasn't just a loose cannon out there, that he could pick his spots better and defend better.
"I don't care how good you are offensively you still have got to be able to defend because you're the last guy there. We worked more on things defensively with him. He was such a gifted player offensively that you didn't have to do anything."
The Devils never abandoned their defensive ways, but Niedermayer bought in and helped them turn their strong defense into offensive production.
When New Jersey won the Stanley Cup again in 2000, it was one of the best offensive teams in the League, with Niedermayer playing a major role.
The Devils finished second in the NHL in 1999-2000 with 251 goals (3.06 per game). They led the NHL with 295 goals (3.60 goals per game) in 2000-01 and came within one win of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
New Jersey averaged 2.63 goals per game in 2002-03 and won the Stanley Cup again, in a seven-game Cup Final series against the Ducks.
Niedermayer had 476 points in 892 games with the Devils from 1991-2004. The team retired his No. 27 two years ago.
"The way his career evolved, I thought, 'I don't have to worry about him being underrated anymore,'" Leetch said. "He's got all the Cups, all the championships, all the awards and he moved right up to his rightful place."
Niedermayer was a three-time Stanley Cup champion and an Olympic gold medalist by June 9, 2003. He was on his way to the Hall of Fame, but that success tasted so bittersweet.
The move to Anaheim and removing the guilt
Niedermayer had just won the Stanley Cup at the expense of his younger brother, Rob, who played for the Ducks in 2003.
The on-ice celebration after Game 7, the postgame champagne shower in the Devils' dressing room, the championship parade in the Meadowlands parking lot and his day with the Cup in Cranbrook, British Columbia later that summer were not enough to stop Niedermayer from feeling guilty about trashing his brother's Cup dream.
"It was a tough time," Niedermayer said. "We went through it and then at the end, shaking his hand in the line, knowing he wasn't going to win the Stanley Cup and knowing how much it meant to him, it was tremendously tough at the time."
His feeling would change four years later when as teammates with the Ducks the Niedermayer brothers helped bring the Stanley Cup to Southern California.
"That really changed my perspective on [the 2003 series]," Niedermayer said. "I can look back at it now and see a pretty amazing story that we were a part of."
Niedermayer turned down a five-year contract offer from the Devils to sign a four-year contract with the Ducks after the 2004-05 lockout. He was attracted to the idea of playing in Anaheim alongside his brother, with whom he had won gold at the 2004 World Championship. But the Ducks also appeared to be building a team that could compete for the Cup.
"It was a tough decision [to leave New Jersey]," Niedermayer said. "I guess some people don't want to hear that and I can respect that, but that's the truth. New Jersey had been a great place for me to play.
"Now there was a chance to play [with Rob] in the NHL and that is something that interested both of us quite a bit. I took a chance, a bit of a risk going to a team that had new ownership, new management, new coaches and certainly had been up and down a lot over the years. I didn't really know what to expect in a lot of ways."
The Ducks went to the Western Conference Final in 2006 and lost to the Edmonton Oilers.
Chris Pronger came via a trade a few months later to join the Niedermayer brothers and the emerging trio of Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Penner. Jean-Sebastien Giguere was still in net, and Teemu Selanne, Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald filled out a dynamic top six. The Ducks were now legit contenders.
They would go on to win the Cup, beating the Ottawa Senators in five games in the Final. It happened faster than Niedermayer expected.
"I went there with the intention to win the Stanley Cup," Niedermayer said, "but had I dissected and really looked at it, given it an honest judgment. If you would have asked me a few years prior I would have been surprised that it would happen that quickly."
Niedermayer wasn't sure if there was any reason to play on at that point. He had nothing left to win and now he could say he helped his brother win the Cup. He contemplated retirement all the way into December of the 2007-08 season.
But he was 34 and had more hockey left in him, so he returned and played 48 games that season and two more full seasons after that. He had 264 points in 371 games with the Ducks from 2005-10.
Even though he knew his career was winding down, Niedermayer had one more major challenge left in front of him.
Canada's captain and a gold rush at home
Niedermayer again was contemplating retirement as the 2009-10 season was approaching, but the pull of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was too great on him. He's a B.C. native and the opportunity to play for Canada in his home province was too good to pass up, especially considering Canada's coach, Mike Babcock, got to Niedermayer early and convinced him to play.
"I talked to him well in advance about being the captain of that team," Babcock said. "One thing we talked about was playing at a high level. I told him he'd be fine and he was fine."
Niedermayer said the conversation with Babcock about taking the captaincy was short and "pretty matter-of-fact." It didn't have to be long. The only answer was yes. He was ready for the challenge.
"To be in that position with Team Canada at the Olympics in my home province, it's another amazing opportunity that a lot of people will never get," Niedermayer said. "I knew enough at that point that whether that 'C' was on or not I wasn't going to do anything differently. I would have done the same things but it was nice to get that and it was nice to pull it off in exciting fashion.
"It was no easy task [to win gold], but I guess because it was that tough it made it that more special to win in Vancouver."
Niedermayer knew heading into the Olympics that he wasn't going to be able to play with the same speed that he had eight years earlier when he helped Canada win gold in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"Defense is a position where experience and playing smart can get you a long way," Niedermayer said. "I had experience and I sort of relied on that a little bit more. I wasn't maybe the fastest guy on the team anymore, but playing defense gives you the option to play a smart game and be successful that way."
He played in all seven games, averaged 20 minutes of ice time per game and contributed a goal and two assists. His mere presence helped the younger Canadian players feel at ease.
"It was just the poise he had," Sidney Crosby told NHL.com. "His whole mentality, the way he approached a game and how calm he was out there, it was felt right through the group. It was contagious. Playing in Canada, the pressure we talked about, having a guy like that lead the way like that, it was a lot of fun. But to be able to learn from someone like that, I feel really fortunate."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl