If Niedermayer does return, it won't be in time for Ducks' London opener

CRANBROOK, British Columbia -- What does Scott Niedermayer see as he and his family gather for photos in front of the Stanley Cup near the wide, shallow Elk River?

Does he see what still might be possible? Or does he see the closing of a grand circle?

What does Niedermayer feel when he lifts the Stanley Cup over his head, his brother Rob standing beside him, at the top of Fisher Peak?

Does he feel the will to give the game one more try? Or does he simply feel the end? Or does he feel something in between?

Ask Niedermayer, who turns 34 on Friday, those very questions and he grins ruefully and shakes his head because he truly appears not to know. Or maybe he knows too much. Maybe he knows that what he sees and feels are all those things.

"It's a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," Niedermayer says of making a decision on whether to play another season or retire having accomplished everything there is to accomplish as a hockey player.

After spending three days with the Stanley Cup in the picturesque area near the brothers' hometown of Cranbrook, sharing the hosting duties for the first time with his brother Rob, the answer might not be any clearer or closer. Indeed, resolution might be more distant.

What was once a slam dunk -- that Niedermayer would retire having won his fourth Stanley Cup, this time with the Ducks, and first Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last June -- has instead become a jumble of indecision.

While waiting for friends to show up at a Cranbrook park to spend some time with the Cup earlier this week, Niedermayer acknowledged he began the summer telling Anaheim GM Brian Burke he likely wouldn't return for the coming season.

But after watching a team-produced video celebrating the Stanley Cup win, including interviews with his teammates, and contemplating the reality of walking away from the game after 14 seasons of superlative play, Niedermayer seems genuinely uncertain about how to proceed.

One thing is almost certain, though. Even if the smooth-skating defenseman decides to give it one more go, he won't be on hand when the Ducks open the season. If Niedermayer does come back, it would be after the team returns from their trip to London, England, where they will open the NHL season on Sept. 29 and 30 with two games against Los Angeles. The Ducks then play three road games in the East and Niedermayer said he won't be ready to play in at least the London games.

I don't have the right answer. I don't know when I'll have that answer. I'm waiting for someone to tell me [what the right answer is].

--Scott Niedermayer on whether or not he'll retire

It's entirely possible Niedermayer will wait until later in the season to return to action. He has two years left on a contract that would pay him $6.75 million a year. The Ducks signed free-agent defenseman Mathieu Schneider as an insurance policy against Niedermayer's potential retirement. If Niedermayer starts the season in limbo, he simply would be suspended without pay by the team and his salary wouldn't count against the cap until he returns. Then, it would be pro-rated depending on how much of the season remained.

Would the Ducks mind? It might not be ideal, but having some of Scott Niedermayer is a whole lot better than having none of Scott Niedermayer.

Having enrolled their sons in local schools, Scott and wife Lisa won't be far away from the Honda Center in Anaheim if Scott does get the hockey bug once the season starts.

"I don't have the right answer," Niedermayer said. "I don't know when I'll have that answer. I'm waiting for someone to tell me [what the right answer is]."

In some ways, the visit with the Cup, his fourth, has been a potent reminder of the rewards of the game, the things that have drawn him to it since he was a child.

"If I do decide to go down that path [to retirement], this will be the last [visit]. That's pretty simple," Niedermayer said as he and Lisa and three sons posed for pictures near the Elk River outside of the resort and mining town of Fernie, British Columbia.

But the Cup's arrival is also another reminder of the commitment and effort that's needed to be a champion, the wear and tear on the body and the time away from family and loved ones that playing in the NHL represents, all issues that have led Niedermayer to contemplate calling it a career.

No player in the history of the NHL has won so consistently at so many levels.

Niedermayer has won a Memorial Cup and World Junior Championship gold medal, a World Championship, a World Cup of Hockey title, an Olympic gold medal and, of course, four Stanley Cups, three with the New Jersey Devils and the latest with the Ducks. Individually, Niedermayer won the Conn Smythe Trophy in June to go with the Norris Trophy he won as the league's outstanding defenseman in 2004 and a host of All-Star appearances and other individual awards.

During the lockout that cost the NHL the 2004-05 season, Niedermayer took the opportunity to examine what life would be like without hockey, a kind of trial run, he said. He and his family stayed in Fernie. The kids went to school. Niedermayer was a normal dad, helping out at the school, cleaning up after events. He became more interested and involved with ecological issues. He and Lisa bought a lot outside a nearby provincial park.

When the lockout ended, Niedermayer, who'd played his entire career in New Jersey, signed with Anaheim. He was closer to home, and for the first time, he got to play with Rob. After falling in the Western Conference finals in 2005-06, the Ducks won their first Stanley Cup. When Scott handed Rob the trophy that night, it seemed like the perfect exclamation point to an extraordinary career. Or it did.

"I've made [the decision] a few times. It's changed a few times," Niedermayer said. "I really don't know when it'll be finalized."

As for who he's talked to about the decision, it's easier to note those he hasn't consulted.

"I don't know who I haven't talked to about it," he said.

Rob, 32, obviously would like to see his older sibling return for one more go-round.

As Rob told fans: "I've got another couple of weeks to talk Scott out of his retirement."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.