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Lacrosse skills helped Nieuwendyk's goal scoring

by Dan Rosen
TORONTO -- When Al MacInnis would wind up for one of his light-speed slap shots, almost everyone on the ice and even in the stands would duck or dive out of the way.

Not Joe Nieuwendyk. He never worried about the flying frozen disc that was coming fast, hard and heavy off of MacInnis' blade hitting him, because most of the time he knew what the Hall of Fame defenseman was aiming for.

"I think a lot of people feared Al's shot, so he was looking for me in those instances," Nieuwendyk said Monday morning from the Hockey Hall of Fame, several hours before he officially becomes an honored member like MacInnis, his former teammate in Calgary. "Every now and then you'd take one, but the reward was much greater than the danger in my opinion."

Deflection goals were common for Joe Nieuwendyk thanks to the hand-eye coordination he crafted through years of playing box lacrosse. (Getty Images)
The reward came in the form of a deflection goal for Nieuwendyk thanks to the hand-eye coordination he crafted, developed and essentially perfected through years of playing box lacrosse.

He was one of the best young players in Canada prior to starting his Hall of Fame hockey career. As an 18-year-old, Nieuwendyk and his good friend, Gary Roberts, played for the Whitby Warriors of the Ontario Junior A lacrosse league. The Warriors won the Minto Cup, Canada's national junior tournament, and Nieuwendyk was named MVP.

The Ontario Junior A lacrosse league now hands out the Joe Nieuwendyk Award on an annual basis to its most outstanding rookie.

Nieuwendyk, in fact, liked lacrosse more than hockey when he was a kid. He went to Cornell in 1984 with the idea that he would play both sports, but after getting drafted by the Flames following his freshman season he decided to stick only to hockey.

"I had to make a choice," Nieuwendyk said. "I believe I made the right choice."

Without his lacrosse skills, Nieuwendyk likely wouldn't have found a way to score 51 goals as a rookie in 1987-88. He added 51 the following season and 45 in each of the next two.

"I always said that they helped me tremendously early in my career, thanks to just the physicality of the sport and the hand-eye coordination," Nieuwendyk said. "I expected and wanted to score goals in lacrosse, and I think it helped me in hockey by just standing in front of the net and tipping pucks. There was a lot of that early in my career with Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, who were phenomenal at taking those point shots."


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NHL Network analyst Craig Button said what was most striking to scouts like himself was how unbelievable Nieuwendyk's hands were.

"He was a different goal scorer," Button told "In that era you still had guys shooting the puck down the wing and scoring. He was that guy around the net that could get pucks, and that's when you started to hear about the lacrosse background. He wasn't a prototypical, 'I'm going to take you out of your shoes or blast the puck from the wing' guy. He got pucks in tight and when you heard about the lacrosse background you said, 'OK, this is a different skill set that is helping him.' "

Terry Crisp, who coached Nieuwendyk in Calgary early in his career, said he specifically put him on the ice during power plays because of his ability to knock down shots and tip them in.

"Joe Nieuwendyk was one of the best I have ever seen standing in front of the net knocking pucks out of mid-air," Crisp told "He used to practice it day in and day out, and he had an uncanny knack."

One person that already knew the type of skills Nieuwendyk was bringing to the NHL was Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. He watched Nieuwendyk during his days at Cornell from 1984-87 and could see the lacrosse skills at play.

"When I was coaching in college I had a lot of players that played lacrosse and I always saw something different in their stick-handling ability as far as the feel of the puck," Lamoriello told "It was almost a magnet, a special touch. They don't beat the puck like an egg-beater. It's like a lot of Europeans playing soccer, and they can do things when the puck comes to their feet."

As Nieuwendyk's career wore on he had to find other ways to score. That's where his intelligence took over.

He never again scored as high as 40 in a season, but he had three seasons of 30-plus goals and another seven times got at least into the 20s. Nieuwendyk finished his career with 564 goals and 1,126 points in 1,254 games.

"Joe knew what his strengths were as a player, and when you're intelligent you understand that situations are different," Button said. "When you have different situations it's not always the same response or same answer for each situation. Joe's intelligence allowed him to understand what teams were doing against him and how to get his strengths to the forefront of the game. When you can do that consistently, you're going to have a lot of success.

"And, hey, now we're talking about Joe going into the Hall of Fame."

If it weren't for lacrosse, we might not be.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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