Wednesday, December 30, 2009
His Golden Years
By Robyn Norwood
For ESPN Los Angeles
When Scott Niedermayer won the Stanley Cup for the Ducks with his brother, Rob, in 2007, the pair carried the Cup by helicopter to a mountaintop glacier near their home in Cranbrook, British Columbia, to celebrate.
He might have to find a higher peak if he wins the second Olympic gold medal of his career at the Vancouver Games in February -- this time as captain of Team Canada on a sheet of Canadian ice in his own province.
Niedermayer was tapped Wednesday to be the leader of the team that carries the tremendous weight of Canada's hopes in a way few Americans can understand. Some Canadians called the deliberations of the Team Canada brain trust that named the men's Olympic team Wednesday more closely watched than the debates of Canada's Parliament -- a body now poised to shut down until the conclusion of the Olympics.
The quiet, dignified Niedermayer, a 36-year-old defenseman who has won four Stanley Cups and the 2002 Olympic gold medal, might be the right antidote to the potentially poisonous pressure of a nation's expectations.
"I think the best way to approach it is to embrace the excitement of being there," Niedermayer said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be playing for Team Canada in the Olympics on Canadian soil, and it's tremendously exciting for everybody involved, from the players to the people in the stands."
Inside the Team Canada dressing room, there will be players as young as Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, 20, and superstar Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who bears the responsibility of an alternate captain at only 22.
Ryan Getzlaf, 24, one of two other Ducks on Team Canada along with Corey Perry, also 24, said he anticipates the impact Niedermayer will have.
"Scotty has a huge calming effect in any situation," said Getzlaf, expected to be the second-line center. "He is not a rah-rah guy. He doesn't say a lot. He does lead by example, and when he has something he needs to say, everyone in the room knows it's big.
"Scotty just brings that winning past. He's won everywhere he's been and won about every award and everything there is to win as a defenseman."
That includes the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman. In international competition, Niedermayer is the only player in hockey history to have won the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, the World Championship, the World Cup, the Memorial Cup and a World Junior title.
He contemplated retirement after the Ducks' Cup victory in 2007, lingering on the ice with his wife, Lisa, to take in the scene after the Ducks clinched. Then he lingered on the sidelines 34 games into the next season before deciding to rejoin the team and continue his career.
Niedermayer considered his options again before this season, then signed a one-year contract, in part because he knew the Olympics awaited.
"It was something I knew I wanted to do, but I tried to put it on the back burner," he said. "The NHL season starts in September and you hope it goes until June," he said. "It's a big decision."
The lure of another season -- and in all likelihood, a final Olympics -- won out. But it has been difficult for a Ducks team expected to be a contender that instead has struggled to emerge from last place in the Western Conference.
Niedermayer, who once finished with a plus-minus rating of plus-34 as a New Jersey Devil, is carrying the burden of an underachieving team and had what would be a career-low rating of minus-10 in late December.
"It hasn't been the easiest year, there's no hiding that fact. It definitely wears on you," he said. "But I've been around and I've seen this before. You get to the Olympics, it's different. It's a quick, intense tournament, and you tend not to feel as worn down."
Niedermayer was part of the Canadian team that won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, but he missed the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, withdrawing because he needed knee surgery. Team Canada lost in the quarterfinals, and Niedermayer felt for his would-be teammates. Hockey is different in Canada, and a nation's eyes turn to the ice when Team Canada plays.
"Most of the population, with a few exceptions, lives in places where in mid-January, it's cold, it's icy, and most people get the skates out and play hockey," Niedermayer said. "They love the sport. It's a big deal."
Would a gold medal in Vancouver be the pinnacle of his career? Niedermayer, ever the voice of calm logic, said he wouldn't compare a gold medal to a Stanley Cup because they are such different undertakings -- a two-week tournament for your country and a 10-month odyssey for your NHL team.
"It's just an honor to be on the team, then to be named captain of the club is an honor as well," he said. "I'm just going to do the best I can, not really change anything or do anything drastically different. I guess in some ways, I won't make a huge deal about it. You just go about your business and try to be prepared and be at your best when you need to be."
To climb the mountain again and hear "O, Canada" as the gold medals are awarded in Vancouver, Team Canada's best will have to be the world's best.
Robyn Norwood is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.