Joe Nieuwendyk’s presence in Dallas was instrumental to the Stars’ success then, when they made two appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals, winning it all in 1999, and the Stars hope that by bringing him back as their new General Manager, he will help restore them to their rightful place among the NHL’s elite powers.
Nieuwendyk, 42, was named GM of the Stars on Sunday and on Monday was introduced to the Dallas media as the NHL’s next rising star executive.
“I think Joe has the talent this organization needs to build an organization that responds to him and returns us to our level of Stanley Cup championships of 10 years ago,” Stars owner Tom Hicks said. “It’s really my great pleasure to welcome Joe Nieuwendyk back to the Dallas Stars. You just look at the guy, he’s a winner and has all the characteristics we wanted.”
“Today I want to look forward,” said Nieuwendyk, who was forced into retirement following an illustrious 20-season career - seven of which were spent in Dallas - by a chronic back injury in Dec. 2006. “Our goals are simple goals and they’re championship goals and it’s my intention that the Dallas Stars are seen as the first-class and professional organization that it was my great privilege to be a part of for so many years as a player. I look forward to the opportunity.”
Nieuwendyk worked as the Special Assistant to the General Manager this past season in Toronto, initially under interim GM Cliff Fletcher, his former boss in Calgary, and then under Brian Burke, who came aboard mid-season. The previous year and a half, Nieuwendyk served in a similar capacity in Florida, the team he last skated for, under GM Jacques Martin.
Both jobs helped prepare the three-time Stanley Cup winner (Calgary 1989, Dallas ’99 and NJ 2003) for the task ahead, and while he may be relatively inexperienced, Hicks has no doubt Nieuwendyk is up to the challenge.
“From our point of view, is it a risk to give a guy his first job?” Hicks asked rhetorically. “Well, it was a risk to give Bob Gainey his first job or any successful GM has to have their first job, but I think at this point, Joe is ready. He’s ready. There’s some element of risk, I know that, I’ve got my eyes wide open, but I’ve done my homework here and I think Joe is the right person at the right time in the right place. That’s why I gave him a five-year contract.
“The important thing is Joe is who Joe is. He’s smart, he’s very disciplined. This week has been very interesting. I was ready to make a deal with him a long time ago, but he’s been very careful, very deliberate and that’s what you want to see in a general manager. Think through decisions before you make them and make them with a full commitment.”
From his perspective, Nieuwendyk acknowledged his ascension to a GM position happened a bit quicker than he anticipated, but pointed out that Bob Gainey, the former Stars GM who built the powerhouse squad of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, was younger when initially hired by the Minnesota North Stars.
“I probably didn’t expect to be sitting here three years removed from playing, but I have to tell you, getting off the plane today, it feels comfortable,” said Nieuwendyk, who amassed 178 goals and 340 points in 442 regular season games with Dallas from 1995-2002, when he was traded to New Jersey. “It feels in some ways like I’m coming home again. I didn’t really leave on my terms in 2002, so I felt a sense of calmness when I got off the plane today. I feel good about it. I’ve consulted with a lot of people, I respect a lot of people’s opinions. I spoke with people like Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong, got some pretty good advice from a lot of different sources. I think Bob’s path was hopefully very similar to the one that I’ll take. He was 39 when he first was the man in charge in Minnesota and I have an incredible amount of respect for him.”
Nieuwendyk believes he has had enough apprenticeship to be prepared for the job and also indicated that by having his predecessors remaining in the organization - Les Jackson returns to his previous role as Director of Scouting and Player Development while Brett Hull was named Executive Vice President and Alternate Governor - he will have plenty of resources to draw upon.
“I’ve had the great fortune in my playing career to play for three different Stanley Cup-winning teams,” Nieuwendyk said, “and I’ve spent my time since leaving the ice working at all levels of management and with some exceptionally talented people. I’ve learned first-hand from people like (New Jersey GM) Lou Lamoriello, Bob Gainey, Jacques Martin, Cliff Fletcher and most recently, Brian Burke. I’ve spent a lot of time with some of the best.
“I think you take a little piece from everybody. I have a lot of respect for those gentlemen, but I have to form my own niche, too. I’m not going to be somebody I’m not. I’m just going to be myself and work hard and be very respectful. Certainly I’m not going to be a lone wolf, I’m going to use people around me. This organization has a lot of good people in it. Brett and Les are a good support system for me, so I look forward to digging in with those guys.”
Both Hicks and Nieuwendyk noted that the incredible success the team enjoyed during his prior experience here as a player had a lot to do with his appointment as GM some seven years after he left town.
“I can tell you that this is an extremely proud day for me and my family, to be back in the Dallas Stars family,” said Nieuwendyk, who was initially acquired in Dec. 1995 from Calgary in exchange for a young prospect named Jarome Iginla. “I’d like to thank the owner of the Dallas Stars, Tom Hicks, for this tremendous opportunity. I came to Dallas in 1995 and under Mr. Hicks’ leadership and under the hard work and dedication of Bob Gainey, Ken Hitchcock, a great support staff and a tremendous group of players, we achieved the highest level of success and set a standard of being a first-class, professional and championship-caliber organization. It was a very special time for me and my family and the relationships and friendships that have endured are very important to me now and are a big reason why I am standing here today before you.”
“The first time that Joe Nieuwendyk joined the Dallas Stars organization was about 10 days after I signed a contract to buy the Stars, the last couple of weeks of 1995,” Hicks recalled. “In 1997, we had a great team, went to the playoffs, got upset in Game 7 by Edmonton. 1998, we won the President’s Trophy for the best record in the NHL and I think we would have won the Stanley Cup if it wasn’t for a dirty player from San Jose that drove Joe into the boards in Game 1 of the playoffs that year. In 1999, we did win the Stanley Cup and the President’s Trophy and Joe Nieuwendyk won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP. The next year, we went back to the Stanley Cup Finals. In 2002, in the middle of that season, Joe left the Dallas Stars organization, not at his choosing, went to New Jersey. The next year, New Jersey won the Stanley Cup with Joe.
“And in the years since then, the Dallas Stars have won a total of three playoff series, two of those the season before this last year. I think we’re at a point now that we get to welcome Joe back to the Dallas Stars. I think Joe, from everything I’ve been hearing for a matter of months now, is one of the true up-and-coming top executives in hockey.”
People who know Nieuwendyk all gave him a ringing endorsement, including coach Dave Tippett, who recently worked with his new GM as part of Team Canada’s management team at the World Championships in Switzerland from April 24-May 10.
“Through the last month, we’ve spent some time together,” noted Tippett, whose coaching tenure in Dallas began just a couple of months after Nieuwendyk’s departure. “He’s obviously very well-prepared, has a great history with this franchise and is very enthused about coming in here and trying to continue the tradition that’s been built here. He was a guy that had a great will to win, a good combination of smarts, skill, the whole package. He was a very good player and I think he’ll be a very good GM.”
Some of his new players remember him as the consummate teammate and were happy to hear of his appointment, drawing a correlation between his approach to playing with what they expect from him in the front office.
“He took me under his wing my first year, his family took care of me, cooked me dinners,” recalled captain Brenden Morrow
, of his rookie season in 1999-2000. “He was my first roommate in my first training camp. He was a real classy guy and an important part of the team. He was well-prepared, he came to play every night, he worked really hard. He was a real dedicated professional and you knew when he was in the lineup, he was going to give everything he had.”
“He was a leader in the locker room when I was around,” added goaltender Marty Turco, who played his first two seasons in Dallas as Nieuwendyk’s teammate, “and to see him up on the podium today to become the general manager of the Dallas Stars is not something that surprises me and actually warms me to know the things that he can do and what he stands for. It is a good day and we’re going to look back at this one for a long time in the history of the Dallas Stars.”
Taking over a team that just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002, Nieuwendyk doesn’t have a whole lot of time to ease into the job, as he is already heading to the NHL’s annual GM meetings in Pittsburgh, at the Stanley Cup Finals. He also has the Entry Draft coming up on June 26 and then free agency starts July 1.
“My number one priority is to get back on a plane tonight and go to my first GM’s meeting tomorrow,” Nieuwendyk said at Monday’s press conference. “That will be a necessary step, to start meeting those guys and get to know them. Brett has helped me with that, he’s let me know they’re a good bunch of guys. With the draft coming up, I think Les is very well-schooled in it, that’s his specialty and I’ve had a chance to talk to a couple of the scouts and they seem to be very well-prepared for the draft, so I think we’re way ahead of the game as far as the draft is concerned.
“For me, for the next few weeks, it will be getting to know the staff, getting to know the people in the office, getting comfortable with my surroundings and obviously, I’ll want to meet with some of the coaches and some of the players and start to go to work.”
The Joe Nieuwendyk Era has begun.