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Niedermayer decides he's still got 'it'

by Larry Wigge
The words were simple and to the point.

Before a game in St. Louis on Feb. 1, Scott Niedermayer spoke of sitting out the first two-plus months of last season to spend more time with his family after playing into June to win the 2007 Stanley Cup. He talked about the commitment a player of his caliber needs to make to be ready to rev it up for one more season. But he also passionately described how much he missed the game, the competition, and the fact that he felt he let his teammates down by not being there when they stumbled to start 2007-08.

That pride, determination and competitive nature were obvious when I came to my final question: OK, Scott, you've been through this once now. What are you thinking about for next season?

"I haven't thought a lot about next year," he said, but the eyes and the smile told the story. "If the thought of leaving the game comes up again, I'll certainly be better at it next time."

With little hesitation Niedermayer announced June 26 that he will come back for the 2008-09 season – partly to complete the final year of his four-year, $27 million contract – but more important to help the Ducks get erase the sting of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Dallas Stars.

"I'd say I was 99 percent retired, but that one percent won out in the end," Niedermayer told me that February morning.

To the rest of us, it was clear this wasn’t Ray Bourque finally winning a Stanley Cup after 22 years and leaving on top. This wasn't John Elway winning back-to-back Super Bowls and fading into the Rocky Mountain sunset.

"Clearly, no player has played more hockey, when you consider five Stanley Cup Finals, Olympics, World Cups, everything he's done over the last 15 years," St. Louis Blues winger Paul Kariya said. "I could be happy for him with any decision he made considering all he's accomplished."

Commitment, preparation, being mentally strong – those are the words that kept coming out of Scott Niedermayer's mouth.

"Playing in the NHL is a hard job," Niedermayer said. "I know the type of commitment, enthusiasm and passion it takes to play this game the right way. You have to be ready to commit to it 100 percent, every minute, every day, except for a little time off at Christmas. It's a huge, huge commitment and I didn't feel I'd be able to make that commitment at the time (training camp).

"This has been a huge part of my life for a long, long time. I looked at my career and wondered, 'What more can I ask for?' "

But after pausing to consider the enormity of that decision for a moment, Niedermayer added, "The thought of retiring had crossed my mind a lot last season ... if we were fortunate enough to win the Stanley Cup. The idea of leaving on top seemed important at the time."

"I'd say I was 99 percent retired, but that one percent won out in the end."

-- Scott Niedermayer

Editors tell us not to mix our tenses when we write. But that's exactly what Scott was doing. Past, present, future and back again. It was clear to me he wasn't comfortable calling it quits just yet.

Niedermayer didn’t miss the arduous travel West Coast teams have to endure. But he missed the competition, as you would expect from a superior athlete. But most importantly, while he was home playing "Mr. Mom," the Ducks were struggling without him, and the good leader felt responsible.

"The big thing was realizing that I still wanted to get out there and compete and help my teammates ... be part of the team," Niedermayer said. "That's something that's pretty special about team sports from the time you're 10 ... or 34."

Or 35 this time around.

“Most important, my kids missed the free bubble gum in the dressing room," he joked.

But the real kid in a candy store is Scott Niedermayer. New season, new hunger, new goals – coupled with the same speed and skill that have made him one of the star players in hockey.

"Scott Niedermayer is by far the best player in the game," St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk told me. "His speed, his skills. No one covers so much of the ice and dominates the game like Scott does."

"He's so effortless out there," Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "I sweat more on the bench than he does in playing 30 quality minutes at full speed every night."

"After two practices he was making us look bad again out there,” Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. “No offense to anyone else, but he clearly makes us better right away. Does that surprise me? No. Honestly, he's so gifted I think he could play until he’s 45. What you have to remember is this is no ordinary situation. And Scott Niedermayer is no ordinary player."

And after a much shorter contemplation this summer, Niedermayer is ready to show he still has that extraordinary hunger for competition.

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