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Back Spasms Keep Joe Out

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
November 10, 2003

TORONTO (CP) - Joe Nieuwendyk has taken a beating from hockey but he doesn't worry that the end of his career might be closing in on him because of the wear and tear.

"I try not to think about those types of things," says the 37-year-old centre. "I've been able to bounce back and feel pretty good. "Once you feel good, you just put everything you have into it."

Back spasms have kept him out of the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup the last four games.

When they first occurred, he was reluctant to pick up his children, Tyra and Jackson, because of the pain involved, and sleeping was uncomfortable. But, as he said Monday, "I'm beyond that point now. I had a tough few days there because things were really out of whack but it's much better now and, hopefully, it will continue to get better."

He skated for the first time in nine days and he's accompanying his teammates on a six-game western road trip. He'll ease himself back into the lineup, although an appearance Wednesday in Anaheim is unlikely.

"I would doubt it just given the fact that I haven't really done a heck of a lot in nine days," he explained. "I have to be careful as well."

The back spasms represent a minor setback compared to what he's endured.

Nieuwendyk was an instant sensation in the NHL after making his debut with the Calgary Flames. He scored 51 goals in his first season, 1988-89, including a league-high 31 on power plays and won the Calder Trophy as top rookie. The only previous rookie to smash the 50-goal barrier was Mike Bossy.

In his second season, he again scored 51, joining Bossy and Wayne Gretzky as the only men to score 50 or more in each of the first two seasons. He had a league-best 11 winning goals, and he helped the Flames win the Stanley Cup.

After scoring 45 in 1989-90, he joined Canada's team at the world championships in Switzerland and tore a knee apart when he caught a skate blade in a rut on his first shift.

Yet, he scored 45 again in 1990-91.

His second serious injury also occurred while wearing Team Canada colours during training camp for the 1991 Canada Cup tournament.

He missed 17 games in 1993-94 with a knee injury, and he was out for 11 at the start of 1996-97 after suffering a chest contusion in a collision with Peter Forsberg.

In 1997-98, a sprained knee took him out of nine games, and in the first game of the playoffs that season the anterior cruciate ligament and the cartilage in his right knee were torn when he was ridden into the boards from behind by current teammate Bryan Marchment.

Surgery was performed to repair the ACL in both knees on May 7, 1998.

All he did the following season was earn playoff MVP honours in helping the Dallas Stars win the Stanley Cup.

In 1999-2000, he missed three games with back spasms and 11 with a chest contusion, and in 2000-2001 he missed 11 games with a groin injury and three playoff games with a sprained knee.

He bounced back to appear in 81 games last season with New Jersey, and although his numbers weren't anywhere near those posted in his earlier years he helped the Devils win the title and in so doing became the ninth player in NHL history to win championships with three different teams. He was reduced to spectator status during the final because of an abdominal injury.

Now the back spasms.

Acupuncture and electric stimulation procedures have helped his recovery.

"Everything we're doing is helping," he said.

Treatments are much better than they used to be.

"I talked to Wendel (Clark) the other night and Wendel told me they used to throw an ice pack on him and next day let him go (and play) again," said Nieuwendyk. "Times have changed, no question about it. There's no doubt the care is much better now."

He's relying on it to keep playing.

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