When Scott Niedermayer
first dropped in on the Syracuse Crunch as a guest instructor earlier this season; he improbably lost a shootout drill.
That meant he had to deliver cups of sports drink to the Crunch players in their locker room. The future Hall of Famer served the spoils of victory to prospects so young they have no memory of an NHL without him in it.
"You're just kind of like, wow, how humble a man he is," said Syracuse rookie forward John Mitchell
. "It's really surprising."
Earlier this week, Niedermayer was back in town to help the Crunch's blueliners some more. At the end of one practice, Syracuse coach Mark Holick
ordered another shootout competition.
"I've been taking this in for now. I'm comfortable with the set-up. I do enjoy helping when I can. But I enjoy the freedom to do some things away from the big rink." -- Scott Niedermayer
This one had much higher stakes, however. It was a strip shootout drill, where players who missed had to keep removing gear and clothing until they scored. A nervous Niedermayer, mindful of his previous defeat, was about to bolt the ice to put on 20 extra T-shirts.
But the fun was for players only, so Niedermayer sat it out.
"My confidence is low. I haven't done it since (the last time)," Niedermayer said. "Keep your eyes up. Don't make eye contact with anybody. No one invited me in."
Now that's what you call a veteran move. And while it was crucial to him, it's probably the least important seed of experienced tips that Niedermayer has been spreading among the Crunch.
One of the NHL's all-time great transitional defensemen is in the midst of another move, this one newer and more difficult than any he has faced in a while. A year after the four-time Stanley Cup champion retired from the Ducks, Anaheim is letting Niedermayer poke around the other side of the business to see if there's something he might like to do long-term.
Besides housing Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler
, he's worked with players in Anaheim, traveled with pro scouts to AHL and NHL games and twice has spent a few days working with the Ducks' affiliate in Syracuse.
"I've been taking this in for now. I'm comfortable with the set-up," Niedermayer said. "I do enjoy helping when I can. But I enjoy the freedom to do some things away from the big rink (of Anaheim)."
At 37, Niedermayer still takes the ice looking like a player mere hours, not months, from his last competitive game. His grace and smoothness are highlighted to a much greater degree against the backdrop of AHL-level players, even those almost half his age.
He's still carrying the same 200 pounds as when he retired, in large part thanks to a bet with brother Rob that a year into his post-playing career he won't have gained a pound.
"It's still touch and go. I still have a few months to get there," he said. "It is a fun game to play. You miss not being able to play. There's been a couple times where I've watched, you feel the feeling you'd like to be out there."
Still, Niedermayer insists he's at peace with his decision to walk away from the NHL. There are different types of rewards awaiting him now. In his first visit to Syracuse, he treated the team's defensemen to lunch so everyone could informally chew over the nuances of their position and the sport.
This time, he said he was more conscious of offering a few reminders during practice and planned to sit down for some group film work.
"Teaching is a skill. I do my best and try what I think is right," he said. "It's easier for me (as a guest). My name isn't on the line, (like) the head coach, the assistant coach. I'm just here to help a little bit. I'm not here to do anything radical to anyone."
While greatness many times gets lost in the translation to younger, much rawer prospects, Niedermayer comes across as low-key and interested in helping. He jokes that with four children, his patience runs deep.
"His resume speaks for itself. I'm sure he's not going to have a problem translating his success into other guys," said Syracuse blueliner Nate Guenin
"I think for many years he's been an on-ice coach. That's one of his many strengths as a player -- anticipating, reading the game," said Crunch assistant GM Bob Ferguson. "Those (stars) have to be wanting to share that information. There's no question that's a passion he has. He can communicate. He's such a valuable part of our organization."
Niedermayer said he hasn't yet decided on the next step in his career, and is in no rush to make one.
"I never thought about that (while playing). There was enough hockey at the time," he said. "I didn't want to think about more hockey (in the future). The last couple of years, you appreciate it won't go on forever."
There's a much longer shelf life for Niedermayer's potential contributions and the weight a new generation of players attaches to his instructions.
After a Crunch practice, Mitchell got a blade from one of his sticks and asked Niedermayer to inscribe it. The autograph was for Mitchell's father, but the memory belonged to the player who collected it.
"Getting to this level is special," Mitchell said. "It's like being a little kid again. You're one of them (a pro), but you grew up watching these guys. You'll always have that respect for him."