Skating in front of dozens of fans on Thursday at Anaheim Ice, Scott Niedermayer took the first step in making his long-awaited comeback to the Ducks a reality.
As his teammates boarded a plane bound for Chicago, Niedermayer put on the Ducks practice gear familiar to him the past two seasons to take part in drills with Strength and Conditioning coach Sean Skahan, former Duck Jeff Friesen and a friend.
“I’ve felt better, but hopefully each day I feel better and better,” Niedermayer said in assessing his time on the ice. “I’ve skated a little bit on my own but not the caliber that I’m going to be preparing to skate in the NHL. I have some work ahead of me for sure.’
While he will not get a chance to practice with his teammates until next week when the Ducks return home from a three-game road trip, Niedermayer said being back with them is one of the main reasons he decided to return to the club.
“I think the big thing was just realizing that I felt I still wanted to get out there and compete and help my teammates, support my teammates and be part of a team,” Niedermayer said. “That’s something that is pretty special about team sports. Whether it’s 10 or 12 year olds or professionals, there’s a special bond that you have in the room. I’m glad to be back or getting close to being back in that situation.”
Following a 4-1 victory over Buffalo
on Wednesday night, the Ducks spoke about the thrill of getting their former captain and last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner back on the team.
“Everyone in this room is happy to have him back,” said brother Rob Niedermayer. “It was a big decision for him. I’m just glad he made the right one.”
Added Andy McDonald: “There’s no doubt about it, we’re an excited group to have Scotty back. He’s such a terrific player. We’re going to become that much better as a team.”
Todd Bertuzzi was looking forward to the prospect of playing with Niedermayer for the first time in the NHL.
“It gets you excited,” Bertuzzi said. “It’s nice knowing that we’re getting a player of his magnitude and skill level. At the same time, we have to take care of business before he comes back.”
The thought of Niedermayer donning his No. 27 Ducks jersey again was bleak in July, when the veteran defenseman began to contemplate retirement.
“I thought I was retired basically at that point,” Niedermayer said. “In early July, I let (Ducks General Manager) Brian (Burke) know that I thought my hockey career was done or close to it. Up until last week, I was not ready to commit to this season. Brian said ‘You have time. It’s a big decision. Take the time that you need to make the right decision for yourself.’ I’m thankful for that because without that I’d probably be sitting somewhere now regretting or wishing I had made a different decision.”
With a clear mind and officially back in the Ducks fold, Niedermayer is intent on playing up to the standards he has set in his illustrious career.
“Now my job is to go out there and perform as well as I can on the ice,” Niedermayer said. “That’s what my focus is, to get ready and when I do get on the ice, play as hard as I can for my teammates and for my team.”Following is a transcript from Niedermayer's press conference:
Obviously I’ve finally come to a decision. Everybody has known what’s been going on the last five or six months. This is definitely not what I was looking forward to, having to address the media, but it’s a story and a lot of people are interested. I understand that and this is part of the process. The main thing here is I’m excited to get back on the ice and back with my teammates. It’s been a tough decision on whether to continue to play or whether to retire and move on to other things. I’m sure everybody at one point goes through that. Whether you’ve been through it or not, everybody has to go through it at one point in their lives. I was fortunate that I had teammates and an organization, the Samuelis, which understood what I was going through. I tried to communicate with them through the whole process to let them know where I was at and what I was thinking. They have been probably too understanding through the whole situation and allowed me this time to come to the right decision for myself and my family. I’m very appreciative of that and now my job is to go out there and perform as well as I can when I do get on the ice. That’s what my focus is now, just to get ready and when I get on the ice, play as hard as I can for my teammates and for my team.
On what finally made his decision:
It’s been a gradual change. Right since we finished in June up until the last week, I was not ready to commit to the season, to the training camp when it started. I thought I was basically retired at that point. In early July, I let (Ducks General Manager) Brian (Burke) know that I thought my hockey career was done or close to it. That’s the way I was leaning at that point. Brian said ‘You have time. It’s a big decision. Take the time that you need to make the right decision for yourself.’ Again, I’m thankful for that because without that I’d probably be sitting somewhere now regretting or wishing I had made a different decision. This time has been great for me and I’m very thankful for that. I know it caused a lot of frustration probably, a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns, for a lot of people involved with the team. I apologize for that because that’s definitely not what I intended. I like to think that I think of the team and when I’m on the ice, that’s my No.1 priority. I’m a bit regretful that that has happened but now that I’m back I will be out there doing what I can to help our team.
On when his return to the Ducks lineup will be:
I don’t know when that will be. Again, I’m now going to work as hard as I can to make it as quick as possible to get on the ice. I’ll be skating by myself for a little bit as the team is gone and then I’ll get back in with the team. We’ll just see how it progresses. Hopefully it’s not a long time.
On his decision:
It’s one thing to make the decision in the summer when you’re doing what you normally do. But then to come back, to be at Honda Center opening night when the banner went up, to go to the Samuelis house when they presented us with our Stanley Cup rings, those were all pretty special times and the best times of being a professional athlete. You always want to try and get back to do that same thing. I guess maybe early on I just didn’t feel I had that in me to dig down and do it again. As times progressed I found it again and I’m willing give it another shot.
On if he watched most of the Ducks games while gone:
I don’t know about most, but if I was a home and we were sitting around the couch, we’d put the game on. My kids love watching it, so we would watch some of the games when it worked out.
On if the team’s play influenced his decision to return:
It probably played a little bit of a factor. I think the big thing was just realizing that I felt I still wanted to get out there and compete and help my teammates, support my teammates and be part of a team. I think that’s something that is pretty special about team sports. Whether it’s 10 or 12 year olds or professionals, there’s a special bond that you have in the room. It’s pretty unique and special and I’m glad to be back or getting close to being back in that situation because it’s a great thing.
On if he’s talked to Teemu Selanne:
I haven’t talked to him. I got a text message just saying that they had a baby girl and he’s excited about that. But I have not spoken with him probably for about a month or so.
On how it felt being back on the ice on Thursday:
I’ve felt better, but hopefully each day I feel better and better. Obviously I’ve skated a little bit on my own but not at the caliber that I’m going to be preparing to skate at in the NHL. I have some work ahead of me for sure.
On when he anticipates getting involved in contact drills:
As soon as the team gets back, I think I’ll be ready for that. That will be the next step is the contact drills and being out there in game-like situations that you haven’t practiced. Whether it’s power play, penalty kill or defensive zone drills and just getting your head thinking the way it needs to when you’re on the ice, what to look for and having those things come back as quickly as possible.
On if there’s anything left to accomplish in his career:
Well, I was fortunate where early in my NHL career, I was able to win a Stanley Cup championship and learn the lesson that the biggest challenge of all is trying to do it again. That never goes away. It really hasn’t changed. I put a lot into last season trying to win a championship with a new group of guys and a new situation. It was a very special time and I would love to try and do that again. You learn that. That’s what professional sports is all about. Every year rolls around and it’s the exact same set of challenges and that’s what makes it maybe that much tougher is that you have to find a way to start again and be better than you were the year before.
On if he was looking to do other things away from hockey:
No I wasn’t looking for other things to do really. I was looking for a little space, a little family time, quiet time. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Maybe having that little extended rest helped me. It’s a big decision. Right now, I’ve made a commitment that I’m back here for the rest of the year to do my best and help the team. Going forward, I guess there’s going to be time for another decision down the road, but right now this is the one decision that I made and I’m looking forward to getting back.
On his thoughts driving to the rink on Thursday:
It’s a little different for sure. Anytime I guess when you come to camp for the first day, when you’ve been away from the rink awhile, to make your first trip there is always a different feeling. You get a bit of nerves, excitement and the whole thing. It’s a little different obviously being here by myself and you guys and the rest of the guys aren’t here. It’s exciting. It never changes I guess. When you’re a kid, it’s the same thing, you come to the rink and you know what it’s all about and what’s ahead of you. I’m just glad to get the first day out of the way and get working towards getting back with the team.
On if he’s addressed the team:
I haven’t had a chance to speak to the whole team. I’ve exchanged a few messages and talked to a few guys on the team. I’m sure I’ll be talking to a few more of them over the next days and when they get back. That was a real big thing that I missed and maybe I didn’t think I would as much as I did, just the special friendships and experiences that you have as a team. It’s pretty simple stuff, but its fun.
On if he did anything while gone that he previously couldn’t do while playing hockey:
Well the one thing about professional sports is that when the season starts, you’re all about the season. There’s nothing else going on. That’s been a challenge for me. As your family gets older and there are other things out there, that’s definitely a big challenge for me. Being away from the rink, all of a sudden you have all the time in the world. I guess finding a balance in something like that is a huge challenge. I guess I just felt that I was ready to commit hopefully six months of more hockey and making that full commitment where everyday you’re at the rink and you’re working towards something as a team. There’s no doubt that that’s something that I do think about, that commitment that it takes to have success.
On his role with the team now that Chris Pronger is the captain:
I’m not going to change anything that I’ve done. I guess in some instances Chris will be the guy that has to take the lead in certain situations. But as far as how I’m going to play, how I’m going to act when I’m in the room and when I’m on the ice is not going to change at all. And probably for Chris, the same thing is true. I don’t think he’s probably changed a lot since he’s had the captaincy. He knows what it’s about. He’s had it before. We now have gone through a couple of good playoff runs as a group. Everybody now has a lot of experience and hopefully we can just continue with the leadership we have and obviously the young guys are starting to take more of a role in it as well. So, nothing’s really going to change.
On when he felt his thoughts on retirement shifted:
Probably not until I made the final choice. I started to think about it more and I started to feel maybe I do have it. Maybe I have the commitment and energy to get back out there and commit to what it takes. I don’t take it lightly. When you come to play in the NHL, it is tough. It’s a hard job. You have to be ready to commit to it 100 percent. I wasn’t able to do that. I didn’t think I was able to do that come September, come October. I guess since some time had passed, I felt that I was ready to do that. I feel I’m ready to do that now.
On the high expectations of fans with his return:
I’m not going to be able to control expectations, you never are able to. I think I have a pretty good handle on how the league works and how tough it is. I think that’s another big reason why I look forward to coming back, because it’s a huge challenge that lies ahead of our team and for me to jump in like this and to try and be productive and an important part of the team. That excites me to have that big of a challenge ahead.
On if he’s thought about playing next year also:
I haven’t made a decision on that. With the situation, me considering retirement, that’s a valid question. I’ll see what the future holds. I’m sure that isn’t going to disappear. It may. Maybe I’ll be surprised and it will disappear for a number of years. I don’t know. I can’t really give you an answer on that right now.