Doubt and uncertainty never were detectable in his eyes. Only flashbacks of desire, determination, drive and domination.
Scott Niedermayer always has been a player who leads more by example than words. He’s deft at dismantling defenses with his rare combination of speed and skill. He’s an undeniable difference-maker.
Achievements that include four Stanley Cups, Olympic gold, a Memorial Cup title, World Junior and World Championship wins separate Niedermayer from the rest. And clearly, none of us saw quit in those eyes as he handed the Stanley Cup to his brother Rob last June after he helped make the Anaheim Ducks champions.
But it wasn’t until nearly six months later, in mid-December, that the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as Most Valuable Player of the playoffs was back on skates with his team.
"I’d say I was 99-percent retired," Niedermayer said. “But that one percent won out in the end."
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 off 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 star winger Paul Kariya said of his friend. "I could be happy for him with any decision he made considering all he’s accomplished."
But this 34-year-old Edmonton, Alberta, native was on top of the world and seemed to have much more ahead of him.
"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?’"
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 wondered if he said those words to brother Rob when he handed him the Cup, and perhaps the mantle of leadership for the future.
"No, that was a night of joy and celebration," Scott said. "I just told Robbie to enjoy it. ... But, I must admit, I thought about the decision I might have to make later that night."
For a moment, this creative impresario let his guard down.
"I was pretty comfortable with my decision for a while. I got a chance to take my kids to and from school, coach their soccer team and relax," he admitted, ticking off some of the perks of his time away from the game. "If (Ducks GM) Brian Burke had not left the door propped open a little bit, I’d probably be sitting somewhere regretting my decision right now. It’s funny, but when you're sitting at home trying to decide whether to play golf or ride your bike, it's not quite as intense, not quite as important.
"But once time had passed – being there with my teammates when the banners went up, being at (Ducks owners) the Samuelis’ house when they presented us with the championship rings, watching bits and pieces of games on TV, I began to get the itch. It was creeping into my psyche."
Burke was willing to keep the door open for a player like Niedermayer. Wouldn’t you?
"The big thing was realizing that I still wanted to get out there and compete and help my teammates ... be part of the team. That's something that's pretty special about team sports from the time you’re 10 ... or 34." - Scott Niedermayer
"What was the quote about Alexander The Great?" Burke said with a smile. "He wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. Well, that’s probably what was affecting Scotty as well."
Scott Niedermayer says he’s his own man – and he smiles a little devilishly when he said that even his wife and brother seemed surprised by his actions at times since late June.
Rob Niedermayer said he figured his brother was done when he spotted Scott eating cake at a wedding in July.
"I thought; ‘Yeah, he's done,’” said Rob. “All through the decision-making process, I sort of left him alone about it. I knew he was getting bombarded from all sides. I know I was. So I didn't want to ask him all the time."
Scott said he tried to be prepared for all possibilities, putting together lists of why he should and why he should not play.
On one side, there was spending quality time with his wife, Lisa, and sons Logan, Jackson and Josh. He didn’t miss the arduous travel West Coast teams have to put up with. On the other side, he missed the competition like you would expect from a superior athlete. But most important, while he played “Mr. Mom,” the Ducks were struggling without him, and the good leader that he is 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 added. "That's something that's pretty special about team sports from the time you’re 10 ... or 34."
Trying to make light of the decision, Scott joked; "Most important, my kids missed the free bubble gum in the dressing room."
So after six months on the sidelines, Scott Niedermayer is like a kid in a candy store. New year. New hunger. New goals. And the same old speed and skill that have made him one of the star players in hockey.
Numbers never have truly defined Niedermayer's impact on a team, but the Ducks’ 10-2-2 record in their first 14 games back in the lineup is the clearest gauge of what he has meant to the team since his return.
"What was the quote about Alexander The Great? He wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. Well, that’s probably what was affecting Scotty as well." - Brian Burke
"Scott Niedermayer is by far the best player in the game," St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk said. "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," gushed Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz. "I sweat more on the bench than he does in playing 30 quality minutes at full speed every night."
"After two practices,” joked goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, "he was making us look bad again out there. 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.”
Niedermayer is a freak of nature.
"You could be a GM in this league for 30 years and never have a defenseman as good Scott Niedermayer," Burke added.
"Lisa didn’t tell me I’d be making the biggest mistake in my life if I didn’t give it one more try, and I didn’t just wake up one morning and get a sign that I should come back," Niedermayer observed. "It was a gradual feeling I had in my gut and in my heart that I never wanted to put my teammates in such a bad position. Plus, I found another challenge – I wanted to be back here helping my teammates win back-to-back Stanley Cups."
The last team to accomplish that was Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
And, oh yes, Scott, what about next season?
"I haven’t thought a lot about next year," he said, the devilish smile on his face making me think he’s already decided to come back, before he added, "If the thought of leaving the game comes up again, I’ll certainly be better at it next time."
The way Scott Niedermayer can rev up a crowd with his skills, let’s hope that time doesn’t come anytime soon.