Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Farewell to Joe Nieuwendyk

Wendel Clark was drafted 1st overall in 1985. Two hundred and fifty-one picks later, the Flyers took Paul Maurice with the final pick in the draft. But it was the player taken at #27 out of Cornell by the Calgary Flames who would go on to become the best player from the draft year.

Joe Nieuwendyk became a star as soon as he got to the NHL. In his rookie year he won the Calder Trophy, scoring 51 goals and adding 41 assists. In year two he matched his goal total from the previous year and added another ten in the playoffs, as the Flames beat Montreal to win the Cup. During his tenure in Calgary, Nieuwendyk had 274 goals and 616 points in 577 games. Following a sixth straight year without winning a playoff round, the Flames decided to make a move for the future, trading the 29-year old to Dallas for Corey Millen and the Stars' recent first round pick, Jarome Iginla.

While some may think the Flames got the better end of the deal in acquiring Iginla, they would go on to miss the playoffs in all but one of the next 8 seasons and it took seven full years before Iginla took his game to the next level. Of course Nieuwendyk helped to carry the Stars to the finals in back-to-back years, winning the Conn Smythe in 1999 as Dallas won their first Championship in franchise history. In my opinion Dallas made a fantastic deal - the cost of acquiring a future Hall of Famer and winning a Cup was high but absolutely worth it.

In 2001-02 with the Stars struggling, they decided to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade, sending Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner to New Jersey for Arnott, McKay and a 1st round pick. Joe's stay in New Jersey was short - just one full season plus the final 14 games in 02 - but it did bring him his third ring on his third team.

After winning the Cup in 2003, Joe became a free agent and decided to come home to Ontario, reuniting with his friend Gary Roberts. The Leafs had a strong team and expectations went through the roof with the addition of Nieuwendyk along with trade deadline deals for two more future Hall of Famers Francis and Leetch. Joe battled through injuries and finished third on the team in scoring with 50 points. As usual it was in the playoffs where he took his game to a new level, scoring 6 goals in 9 games and carrying the Leafs to a first round win over Ottawa. The aging team ran out of steam in the second round, losing to Philadelphia.

Most thought that this would be the final stop in his illustrious career, but Joe would stay just one season in Toronto after failing to come to terms on a new contract the next summer. Negotiations with GM John Ferguson Jr. went down to the wire but in the end Nieuwendyk and Roberts decided to move down South to play for the Panthers. After the lockout a lot of veterans had trouble keeping up in the new NHL. Joe Nieuwendyk was not one of them - at age 39, he had 26 goals and 56 points in 65 games. Unfortunately he struggled with injuries throughout the year (something that plagued him for much of his career) and in the end it was his back that forced him to call it a career today. It's a shame that he couldn't make one last run at the Cup and retire on his own terms but we did have the privilege of watching him for almost 20 years.

Nieuwendyk also represented Canada twice in the Olympics. All Canadian hockey fans will remember him doing whatever it took to bring home the Gold in Salt Lake. He took on a defensive role where he excelled and was outstanding in the faceoff circle. He led by example and did whatever it took to win.

Joe Nieuwendyk was a star on and off the ice. He may have won three Cups, an Olympic Gold, the Conn Smythe and Calder trophies and was a four-time all-star, but I'm sure one of his proudest accomplishments was winning the Kings Clancy Memorial Trophy in 1995, for Humanitarian of the Year. I've never met him but I have the utmost respect for the way he carried himself on the ice and off.

The debates have already started over whether Nieuwendyk is a Hall of Famer. To me there is no doubt that he is. He may not have as many goals as Ciccarelli or as many Cups as Anderson, but if I had to pick a team to play Game Seven for the Cup and could take anyone from the past 20 years, there are few names I would take ahead of Joe Nieuwendyk. He was a consummate pro. A leader. A warrior. A winner.

Congratulations on a fantastic career Joe and I look forward to seeing you continue to impact the game off the ice for years to come.

Thumbnails used from Getty Images

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