Yes, none other than former Stars center Joe Nieuwendyk was back in town, taking in the Dallas-Phoenix game on Feb. 11 as part of his duties as Special Assistant to General Manager Jacques Martin for the Florida Panthers.
Nieuwendyk, who retired as a player from the Panthers in Dec. 2006 at the age of 40 due to a chronic back injury, has adjusted well to his new position in the front office, including the professional scouting duties that brought him temporarily back to Dallas.
“It’s good, I kind of do a little bit of everything,” Nieuwendyk said. “I've spent a lot of time with our main club. It keeps me in the game and I’ve enjoyed it.”
While Nieuwendyk, who starred in Dallas from 1995-2002, congratulated his former teammate Brett Hull on becoming co-General Manager of the Stars, he wouldn’t go so far as to suggest he had similar aspirations.
“I’m happy for Brett, he’s obviously enjoying himself and I think he’s going to be good in that position,” Nieuwendyk said. “He loves the game, he loved it as a teammate, I’m sure he still has that passion, so I’m sure he’ll do fine. I’m in a little bit of a different situation. I’m just fresh out of the game, Brett’s been out for a few years now. I’ve enjoyed what I’m doing, so we’ll just take it one step at a time.”
Nieuwendyk and Hull, of course, each played crucial roles in the Stars’ incredible run of success from 1998-2000, which included two Presidents Trophies, two Stanley Cup Finals, and the 1999 Stanley Cup championship, with Nieuwendyk capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy that year as playoff Most Valuable Player.
Those glory days are looked back upon wistfully by most Stars’ fans, recalling images of Nieuwendyk camped in front of the net with his back to the goaltender, deflecting a Zubov shot on goal between his legs, or Nieuwendyk unleashing his lethal wrist shot or winning a key face-off.
“Joey was a great player, and as great of a player as he was, he was an even better teammate,” Hull said. “He got along with everybody, was very classy, unbelievably skilled and clutch.”
“Joe is a guy you could always count on, no matter what,” added former Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, now the assistant coach for the NAHL’s Texas Tornado. “Whether it was a big game down the stretch or a key game in the playoffs, you could always rely on Joe stepping up and playing well. He’s a great person, a great team guy on and off the ice.”
The memories for Nieuwendyk of his days here in Dallas, during which he compiled 178 goals (tied for 10th on the franchise all-time list) and 340 points (15th) in 442 games, are just as positive and he enjoys his occasional trips back very much.
“I always love coming back here,” said Nieuwendyk, who completed his entire career 19th in NHL history with 564 goals. “Just the fact that when we first came here in ‘95, it wasn’t really a hockey town and then to be a part of the build, I’ll say, that was neat to be a part of that and ultimately winning it in ‘99 was a great feeling, just the way the city became a part of it and really embraced the team. It was something that you look back on now and you realize how lucky we all were.”
By now, everyone knows how Nieuwendyk was acquired from Calgary on Dec. 19, 1995, in exchange for center Corey Millen and the Stars’ first round draft pick that year, Jarome Iginla, who has gone on to stardom with the Flames. But Nieuwy helped turned the Stars into champions, racking up 11 goals and 21 points on the way to that Cup in ‘99, and along with Mike Modano, gave Dallas a formidable one-two punch at center that few teams could match.
Then, with the team struggling in March 2002, GM Doug Armstrong, in his first major deal since taking over the top job less than two months earlier, traded Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner to New Jersey in exchange for Jason Arnott, Randy McKay and a first-round draft pick. Nieuwendyk would go on to win another Cup with the Devils in 2003 before moving on to Toronto in 2003-04 and signing with Florida in 2005, where the ongoing back injury facilitated the end of his career last season.
“It’s fine, it was just getting to the point where it was difficult to do it every day,” Nieuwendyk said of his back. “It’s probably never going to be 100 percent, but it’s certainly good enough to do what I’m doing now, traveling around watching hockey.”
Nieuwendyk, who is among a select few to win Stanley Cups with three different teams (also Calgary in 1989), acknowledged that while he misses some aspects of playing, adjusting to his post-hockey life has gone relatively smoothly.
“I miss the relationships, I always liked being around my teammates, doing stuff with them, on and off the ice as well - those types of things, you miss,” Nieuwendyk said. “I think in the beginning, it was just having the routine of doing something every day and you kind of knew what you were doing, and then I lost that. That was the hardest part.
“I can’t say I’ve really missed playing, because I played 20 years and played ‘til I was 40 and it was just time to stop, but other than that, it’s been a sweet transition.”
Enjoy it Joe, you deserve it.