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Flames Top-10 individual seasons: Number 7

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

Joe Nieuwendyk’s silky-soft set of mitts. Miikka Kiprusoff’s utter aplomb in the face of a tempest. Theo Fleury’s in-your-face indomitability.

From Kent Nilsson to Johnny Gaudreau, Lanny McDonald to Sean Monahan, Al MacInnis to T.J. Brodie, Joe Mullen to Jarome Iginla, over the course of over three and a half decades in this town, there have been no end of stellar turns in aid of the Flaming C cause.

So wrestling selection a Top-10 individual seasons is a chore. Many factors come into play.

Historical ramification. Sheer volume. Significance to the organization.

You’re spoiled for choice, naturally.

Some are non-negotiable.

Others calls are hellish.

The very fine Calder Trophy-calibre campaigns of Gary Suter and Sergei Makarov are absent, for instance. A sprinkling of stellar 50-goal and/or 100-point performances, as well.

More regrettable yet is the omission of the prolific yet edgy 53-goal (second highest seasonal total in franchise history), 207-PIM 1991-92 turn put in by truculent left winger Gary Roberts. A season as dynamic as this could’ve slipped in anywhere in the bottom half of the Top 10 without a word of complaint, and on many such lists would’ve.

But, well, competition being what it is …

Here, then, over the next 10 days, is one list of the 10 Calgary Flames’ seasons to most savour, that best stand the test of time, presented in descending order:

No. 7, Joe Nieuwendyk, C, 1987-88.
75 GP, 51 G, 92 Pts, Calder Memorial Trophy, NHL All Rookie Team.

The indignant lede on the newspaper column jumped off the page that June 1985 day after Calgary Flames’ GM Cliff Fletcher had played his hand on the draft floor at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Some Ivy League upstart with an unpronounceable, unspellable last name in exchange for the Magic Man?

This was a fair rate of return?

“Kent Nilsson for Joe Nieuwendyk,’’ the lede hissed.

 “It stinks.”

Three years later, the smell had dissipated immeasurably.

Now, of course, he’s Joe Who, Captain Joe, a Stanley Cup icon, one of the most fabled of all Flames alumni, enshrined in the Forever A Flame honour roll.

Back then, he was seen as nothing more than an unknown, a shot-in-the-dark, a second-round, 27th-overall draft pick acquired for a wildly errant star forward who’d worn out his welcome.

“Looking back,’’ the three-time Stanley Cup-winning Hockey Hall of Famer is reflecting, “what stands out for me about that first year is the support system we had in place in Calgary. Cliff. Al MacNeil. Coatsey (Al Coates). Riser. The ownership group. Great veterans like Lanny, Pep, Brad McCrimmon, Loober.

“That helped the younger guys -- myself, Robs, Gary Suter, Al MacInnis -- settle in. Helped us grow as a team.”

That Nieuwendyk would saunter up on stage and collect the Calder Trophy that the summer of ’88, he and his mates only 12 months away from Lord Stanley glory, was, heading into the big awards ‘do, nothing less than a foregone conclusion. Those 51 goals had topped all rookies and ranked fifth among all players. He finished tied for third in game winners, at eight, and his 31 power play snipes outpaced ‘em all.

He’d chased Mike Bossy’s freshman record of 53 down to the wire, falling inches short at the tape.

The lanky kid, in short, had it all. Size. Competitive moxie. A set of hands that could shift from soft as eiderdown to lethal as a serpent’s tongue, depending on the need.

“Oh, you could tell he was going to be a special player,’’ says long-ago linemate Hakan Loob nostalgically. “Right away, pretty much. When I met him, started talking to him, then playing with him, it was obvious this was a very intelligent guy.

“So that’s what struck me most: His intelligence.

“And what was really important, I think, was that he found his spot on the team almost immediately.

“He started scoring right away. Not by going end-to-end, but by doing the little things to score goals -- tip-ins, getting good positioning in front of the net, taking a pounding, paying the price. Those kinds of things get noticed by everyone on the team.

“Everything grows by the game, by the period, by the minute. The space you have, the way the game slows down, your confidence in doing things.

“I can't begin to remember how many pucks he deflected into the net. I probably can't count that high.’’

Nieuwendyk had certainly displayed a degree of promise, scoring five times in a brief nine-game audition the season before after graduation from Cornell.

But no one, in their wildest imagination, could’ve imagined what was in store.

“A dream to coach,'' praised his old coach, Terry Crisp. "Nieuwy'd just come into the room, put on his gear and go out and play. No fuss. No dramatics.

“You could chew him out, kick his butt. He went out and did the job.''

Historic No. 50 arrived on March 12th, during a 10-4 thrashing of the Buffalo Sabres at the Saddledome.

"Low shot from Gary Suter at the point, I got a piece of it, off the post up and in. Against Buffalo,’’ Nieuwendyk recalled. “So, yeah, I vaguely remember it.”

Ten games remained on the docket, and Bossy’s decade-old record of 53 seemed destined to fall.

“To be honest, it’s one of the two (records) that I cherish the most. But I have no control over the situation,’’ admitted Bossy at the time. “All I can do is watch, like you. I don’t want anybody in Calgary thinking I’m here on the Island throwing hexes at Joe Nieuwendyk. Because I’m not.

“I wish him the best.’’

No hex bag or incantation, as it turned out, was required. The Nieuwendyk juggernaut would stall, counting only one goal over that final stretch.

He’d go on to play in over 1,100 more regular-season games and score 513 additional goals but never top the 51 he accrued during that marvellous rookie campaign.

“I think back on that year,’’ says Nieuwendyk now, “and being in that organization, with those people, is, I think -- no, I know -- what helped develop me as a player and as a person.

“It was a great season, for sure.’’

The next one, turns out, would be even better.
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