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100 Greatest Players

Joe Nieuwendyk: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Hall of Fame center won Stanley Cup with three franchises

by George Johnson / Special to NHL.com

Long after everyone had finally learned how to spell his last name,Joe Nieuwendyk had not forgotten his nickname from his early NHL days.

"I remember the headlines," he said. " 'Joe … Who?!'

 

Video: Joe Nieuwendyk won Cup with three different teams

 

"Well, at least they wondered who I was, even if at that time they might not have cared."

For those who saw Nieuwendyk play, there's no forgetting.

He played 1,257 games for five NHL teams, scoring 564 goals (66 more in the postseason) and 1,126 points. He won the Calder Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy, an Olympic gold medal and three Stanley Cup championships with three franchises.

 

JOE NIEUWENDYK CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,257 | Goals: 564 | Assists: 562 | Points: 1,126

 

That scope of achievement had seemed so very far away for Nieuwendyk when he was growing up in Whitby, Ontario, sharpening his hand-eye coordination with a lacrosse stick and playing ball hockey in Peel Park on weekends with his best friend and future Calgary Flames teammate, Gary Roberts.

Selected by the Flames in the second round (No. 27) of the 1985 NHL Draft, Nieuwendyk didn't take long to warm to his pro surroundings.

The rangy, 6-foot-2, 209-pound center had carved out a distinguished career at Cornell University. In his final season with the Big Red, 1986-87, Nieuwendyk was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top college hockey player in the United States.

Nieuwendyk scored 73 goals and 151 points in three seasons at Cornell and was later named one of the 50 best players in ECAC history. But in Calgary, at least prior to arriving in the spring of 1987 for a 15-game run (including playoffs) in the NHL, he remained a virtual unknown. Complicating matters, he'd been drafted with a pick acquired in a trade for center Kent Nilsson, arguably the most polarizing player in Flames history.

Any concerns didn't last long.

"Sometimes," Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher said of the pick, "you get lucky in this business."

Deciding to forego his senior year at Cornell, Nieuwendyk made the leap to the NHL gracefully, chasing Mike Bossy's then-record for goals by a rookie (53) right to the end of the 1987-88 season. He fell short with 51, but he had announced his arrival and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

"I've got to admit I'd never heard of the guy, but he was really impressive right away,'' said Hakan Loob, the right wing on Nieuwendyk's line that season. "By that, I mean immediately. He played like a European. Skill. Size. Smart. Great, great hands. Amazing touch. I can't begin to remember how many pucks he deflected into the net.

"I probably can't count that high."

The Flames and their superb center were reaching an apex. Fletcher was in the process of building a powerhouse.

"All of us knew Joe was going to be special right away,'' said forward Lanny McDonald, an early mentor of Nieuwendyk's in Calgary. "First of all, he could fly. Absolutely fly. Great hands. Great lateral movement. And he loved -- absolutely loved -- the game. That's a pretty good foundation to build on."

Nieuwendyk would follow up his rookie outburst with another 51 goals in 1988-89. On Jan. 11, 1989, he set a franchise record by torching the Winnipeg Jets for five goals.

All that proved to be mere prelude to an intoxicating postseason.

On May 25, 1989, a never-to-be-forgotten night for Calgarians, the 22-year-old center would fire a centering pass to McDonald, who scored to give the Flames a 2-1 lead against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. ("I do,'' McDonald said jokingly decades later, "vaguely remember Joe passing the puck to some old guy for a goal.") 

Two hours later, they became the only visiting team to lift the Stanley Cup at the fabled Montreal Forum.

"I remember Joe tearing up on the blue line when they were handing the Cup to Lanny,'' Roberts said. "And I'm saying to him 'Hey, that was easy.' Kind of like '[Hey], we're only 23, buddy. What are you getting so worked up about?'

"He went on to win two more. And I didn't win another one."

Already established as an elite goal-scorer, Nieuwendyk would finish with 45 goals in each of the next two seasons. Before the 1991-92 season, he'd be named the 12th captain in franchise history.

Unhappiness over his contract led to his holding out as the 1995-96 season opened.

"Obviously, money was a part of the whole thing,'' Nieuwendyk said later. "But a big part of it was that [Gary] Suter had gone, [Al] MacInnis had gone, [Mike] Vernon had gone, [Doug] Gilmour had gone.

"The band was breaking up."

On Dec. 19, 1995, Calgary general manager Al Coates traded Nieuwendyk to the Dallas Stars for two forwards: Corey Millen and some kid named Jarome Iginla.

Nieuwendyk's seasons in Dallas were interrupted by injury -- fractured rib cartilage, a torn ACL, back issues and a separated shoulder all caused him to miss significant time -- but in 1998-99 he channeled those frustrations and helped the Stars win the Stanley Cup.

"I think of the first 12 to 14 years of my career as two separate chapters,'' he said. "Calgary, I couldn't ask for a better formative training ground with the ownership and leadership there, the hockey environment, the rivalry with Edmonton, the passion for the team in the city.

"Those were a wonderful eight and a half years. Then I go to Dallas, a football town. I guess there were some Texans that enjoyed hockey but they didn't really understand it. We were kinda starting on the ground floor. So to be part of building it into a good hockey market, actually stealing a bit of thunder from the Cowboys and then ultimately being good enough to challenge and then win again …"

During that spring memorable spring of '99, Stars coach Ken Hitchcock called Nieuwendyk "a man on mission. He doesn't want this season to end."

Of his 11 playoff goals, six were game-winners. Predictably, one lingers in memory more than the rest: his goal in Game 2 of the second round against the St. Louis Blues at Reunion Arena.

"I think it's maybe the goal I remember most in my career,'' Nieuwendyk said. "Over [goalie Grant Fuhr's] shoulder. I just remember that shot, the magnitude of the game, the moment.

"I always will."

The Stars went on to eliminate the Blues and would lift the Cup after defeating the Buffalo Sabres in a six-game Final, with Nieuwendyk winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

"It was a different kind of satisfaction from the time we won in Calgary,'' he said. "Personally, I don't think I properly savored the moment when I was 22. When you do something that important that young, that early in your career, it's kinda like, 'I'll be back. We'll be back. This is just the first of many.'

"Then I went 10 years between Cups. As the years roll by, you get to wondering if it'll ever happen again. Going through it a second time, I realized how hard it actually was, and how much it meant.

"Plus my mom had passed away and I'd blown my knee out the year before and had double bilateral ACL surgery. So there was a lot emotion built up through that playoff run."

Two months after playing in his 1,000th career game, on March 19, 2002, Nieuwendyk was traded to the New Jersey Devils with Jamie Langenbrunner for Jason Arnott, Randy McKay and a first-round draft pick. By then, he'd adjusted his game and had become a top-notch defensive center and faceoff man. That completeness convinced Wayne Gretzky to make him part of Canada's roster at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where the Canadians won the gold medal for the first time in 50 years.

With New Jersey, Nieuwendyk won the Stanley Cup for a third time in 2003, but a hip injury sustained during the Eastern Conference Final kept him out of the Final.

"That was obviously very difficult," he said. "I enjoyed my time in New Jersey. Emotionally, you're maybe not as invested as with Calgary or Dallas. I mean, I only spent a year and a half there.

"It certainly wasn't the way, but I'll certainly take another Cup for it."

Nieuwendyk played another three seasons -- one for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team he'd grown up supporting, and two with the Florida Panthers. On Dec. 15, 2006, bothered by persistent knee and back problems, he announced his retirement after 20 NHL seasons.

Joe Nieuwendyk had played himself to a standstill.

"These things accumulate over the years," he said that day. "It's a rough game. I really don't have anything to be upset about.

"I've gone as hard as I can."

In 2011 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and three years later the Flames made him the second honoree in their "Forever a Flame" program.

"A dream to coach,'' said Terry Crisp, Nieuwendyk's coach on the Cup-winning Flames team. "Nieuwy'd just come into the room, put on his sweater and go out and play.

"No fuss. No dramatics. You could chew him out, kick his butt. He just went out and did the job."

 

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