Commentary

Classy, clutch Nieuwendyk enters Hall

Updated: November 11, 2011, 2:04 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Joe NieuwendykElsa/ALLSPORT Joe Nieuwendyk won three Stanley Cups with three different teams (Calgary, Dallas, New Jersey).

When you talk with people in the hockey community who have had the privilege to cross paths with Joe Nieuwendyk, the same words are used to describe him: class, dignity, character, humility.

"His whole life he's been a good guy," good friend and former NHL star Gary Roberts told ESPN.com. "It's a simple categorization, but he conducted himself professionally in every way during his career."

Of course, being a classy guy isn't enough to get you into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Three Stanley Cups with three different teams, a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, an Olympic gold medal, 564 career goals and 1,126 career points? Yes, that will do it.

"He was a pre-eminent two-way guy who had 50-goal seasons," Cliff Fletcher, who drafted Nieuwendyk with the Calgary Flames in 1985, told ESPN.com. "He had a great stick around the net, he had a great shot, he saw the ice well, he could skate, he had the size -- he had everything you needed to have. History has indicated that wherever he went, the team was competitive. The more that was on the line in big games, the better Joe played."

[+] EnlargeGary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesGary Roberts, left, on good friend Joe Nieuwendyk: 'On top of winning the Stanley Cup, the second-best thing that happened was having a chance to play with a buddy of mine who I respected my whole life.'

First and foremost, a friend

The tale of Nieuwendyk's Hall of Fame playing career cannot be told without the mention of his good pal Roberts. After all, their hockey days started together in the 1970s in Whitby, Ontario.

"It is quite remarkable that we've played as long we did together, from minor hockey to Calgary to Toronto and Florida," Nieuwendyk recently told us.

The two also played lacrosse together.

Nieuwendyk was an all-world talent in lacrosse, Canada's official national summer sport. He was part of two Minto Cup championship (Canadian national junior title) teams with the Whitby Warriors, winning MVP honors in 1984. He had to give up lacrosse once his NHL career began, but he believes his success in hockey derives in large part from playing lacrosse.

"In some ways, I probably liked lacrosse more than I liked hockey,'' Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com. "I think the two sports really complement each other, the hand-eye coordination, the physical aspect of it. I wanted to be a goal scorer in both sports, and I think lacrosse really prepared me to stand in front of the net when I was only 185 pounds my first couple of years in Calgary."

"There's so many memories that I have with Gary," Nieuwendyk said. "I just feel it's so remarkable for two kids from the same hometown, and the fact we played so many years together and went through so much together. That's really special."

They were drafted one year apart by the Calgary Flames. What were the odds of that?

"When I saw the Calgary Flames take him a year later after me, we were trying so fast to call each other that the phone lines were busy," Roberts said. "To spend the first nine years of our NHL careers together ... of all the memories in my career, on top of winning the Stanley Cup, the second-best thing that happened was having a chance to play with a buddy of mine who I respected my whole life."

'What's Cornell?'

One night during the 1983-84 season, his evening on the ice abbreviated thanks to an uncharacteristic spear that got him thrown out of the game, Nieuwendyk was sitting in the stands watching his junior B team, the Pickering Panthers, play in Markham when a college recruiter from Cornell approached him.

"I said, 'What's Cornell? Where is that?'" Nieuwendyk recalled with a laugh. "But we went down for a recruiting trip later that year, my mom and dad and I, and we absolutely fell in love with it."

At the time, it was an unconventional route to the NHL. U.S. college hockey didn't have the respect it has today compared to major junior hockey.

"I didn't really have a lot of options, to be honest," Nieuwendyk said. "The OHL draft was coming up, and I hadn't really thought of the OHL. I wasn't a very big kid at 16 or 17."

It also might explain how a future Hockey Hall of Famer was able to last until the second round of the 1985 NHL draft.

Taking the big league by storm

An important key to the start of Nieuwendyk's NHL career was the decision to have the forward join the Flames for a few games late in the 1986-87 season to get his feet wet.

Nieuwendyk scored five goals and one assist in those nine games, and added two goals and two assists in six playoff games.

"The key for me was leaving Cornell after my junior year and to play those nine games at the end of the [1986-87] season with Calgary," Nieuwendyk said. "That really paved the way for me. It helped me tremendously going into camp the next season."

He went to camp the following September knowing he belonged, and it showed in his monster rookie campaign. His 51-goal, 92-point season in 1987-88 earned him the Calder trophy, and he followed that up with another 51-goal season in 1988-89. No sophomore slump for him. His sophomore season was capped by his first Stanley Cup championship, the franchise's first and only NHL championship title.

It all came so fast for Nieuwendyk.

"For me as a 22-year-old kid, looking back on my career, I probably didn't absorb it or appreciate it enough," Nieuwendyk said. "Because you're 22, Roberts and I were thinking, 'Holy cow, this is awesome! We'll do this every year.'"

He fondly recalled the reaction of the veterans on the team, especially Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald, who had to wait so long (16 NHL seasons) before finally winning it all.

"It was great how much it meant to some of the older guys," Nieuwendyk said. "That's lasted with me my entire career."

[+] EnlargeJoe Nieuwendyk
Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty ImagesJoe Nieuwendyk won the first of his three career Stanley Cups with the Calgary Flames in 1989.

Trading places

The Calgary Flames juggernaut would disintegrate in the 1990s, as NHL economics hit some of the Canadian teams hard. Powerhouse teams in Calgary and Edmonton were blown up for financial reasons. The Flames traded Doug Gilmour in 1992, Al MacInnis followed in 1994 and Nieuwendyk would be next in 1995.

In Nieuwendyk's case, he was sitting at home during the first half of the 1995-96 season because of a contract dispute and awaited his fate.

"I had heard the Rangers had interest, but I finally got the call right before the Christmas roster freeze," Nieuwendyk said.

On Dec. 19, 1995, Nieuwendyk was shipped to Dallas in a deal that sent Corey Millen and a prospect named Jarome Iginla to Calgary.

"We had some good draft picks coming down the line, like Jarome Iginla," former Stars GM Bob Gainey recently told ESPN.com about the Nieuwendyk acquisition. "There was a decision made that we would try and speed up that program, and see if we could enhance our team as we tried to establish ourselves in that new hockey community in Dallas."

The transition wasn't easy at first for Nieuwendyk.

"I really got in on the ground floor in Dallas," he said. "Hockey wasn't popular in those early years. We didn't have a very good team, and that first half-year I was there, I was thinking, 'Oh my God.' I had come from Calgary, where winning was everything. You go to Dallas where people were still learning what offsides were. It was a challenge and a very difficult transition."

But Gainey would bring in more big names, and the Stars became an NHL powerhouse in the late 1990s. They went on to beat the Buffalo Sabres in the 1999 Stanley Cup finals to capture their first and only Cup. Nieuwendyk was sensational that spring, posting 11 goals and 21 playoff points en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He was as motivated as ever.

"To ultimately win down there was an incredible experience because we had stolen some of the Dallas Cowboys' thunder. People fell in love with a bunch of blue-collar guys who were playing hard," Nieuwendyk said. "For me, it went back to the year before in the playoffs in 1998 with [Bryan] Marchment taking me into the boards. I miss those whole playoffs [he played only one game after the hit blew out his right ACL]. So the next year, it just really drove me.

"I think all the lessons I learned over my career, seeing how much it meant to our veteran guys in Calgary and I hadn't had a sniff at it over 10 years, you realized it wasn't easy. I was really focused for that playoff run."

"He was absolutely at his best in big games," former Stars coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com. The coach added that there were many nights in the coaches' room before a game when someone would say, "Better play the heck out of Joe tonight because we know he's going to have a big game."

The international stage

Canada snapped a 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought in men's hockey at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Nieuwendyk was a key, veteran presence on a team that stumbled out of the gates and needed a steady hand as it dealt with the incredible pressure of delivering for a hockey-mad country.

Pat Quinn, who was coach of that Olympic team, said there were some issues early on with different players having different views on how the team should be run, but a strong core of leadership helped galvanize the team's focus. He cited Nieuwendyk as one of those vets who helped smooth things over.

Quinn said that without Nieuwendyk, a third-liner on that star-studded team, he's not sure the end result would have been the same.

"What an incredible feeling," Nieuwendyk said. "You know the entire country is watching. Your entire family is there decked out in red and white. It was special. I enjoyed both my Olympic experiences. Japan [1998 in Nagano] was special, too, with [Wayne Gretzky] and getting to know him a little bit. Those are special tournaments."

[+] EnlargeJoe Nieuwendyk
Elsa/Getty ImagesJoe Nieuwendyk was his third and final Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003.

On the move again

Nieuwendyk never saw this one coming. He was happy in Dallas and had no clue the Stars were willing to move him.

"We had just bought a new house in Dallas," he said. "We had a 1-year-old and had another one on the way."

He came home from a 10-day road trip after his wife had moved the family into the new house in his absence.

"I came home around 2 a.m., went to our new house from the airport," Nieuwendyk said. "I remember walking around our new house at 3 a.m. for the first time and thinking, 'Oh man, this is beautiful. My wife did such a nice job.' The next morning, I got traded."

On March 19, 2002, he was sent to New Jersey along with Jamie Langenbrunner in exchange for Jason Arnott, Randy McKay and a first-round pick (which, after other trades, Buffalo eventually used to select Daniel Paille).

"It was a real tough transition, but hockey players are hockey players, and I found a new group of guys that I really enjoyed," Nieuwendyk said. "I got to be really close with Scott Niedermayer, and we're still close today."

Nieuwendyk missed the 2003 Cup finals due to injury, but most connected with the organization have said his influence on that team was an integral part of the Devils' winning it all that season.

For Nieuwendyk, it capped a pleasant, if short, experience in New Jersey.

"You see quickly why that organization is so classy," he said. "I have so much respect for Lou [GM Lamoriello]. They do things right there. It was fun to be a part of that winning tradition if only for a short period of time."

A new career

Nieuwendyk joined his pal Roberts in Toronto for the 2003-04 season, an experience Nieuwendyk cherished. He played two more seasons in Florida before calling it quits. It was with the Panthers that Nieuwendyk began a new career, learning the basics of the front office as a consultant. He then followed his old mentor Fletcher to Toronto, where he was a special assistant to the GM (Fletcher was GM in a caretaker role until Brian Burke was hired).

Fletcher knew a long time ago that Nieuwendyk had management written all over him.

"The most important thing is that he really had a good feel for the game, really good knowledge and what it takes to win and separate yourself from other teams," Fletcher said. "You knew once he retired from playing that he was a logical candidate to find his way into management of a team. He has a very good career ahead of him in hockey management."

Nieuwendyk took over as Stars GM in May 2009. His career path into management has surprised no one who knows him.

"I did get to know Joe well during the five-six years we were together with the Stars," Gainey said. "It doesn't surprise me because he was a high-quality athlete and person. Any dialogue you would have with him, there was always a lot of logic and intelligence attached to his point of view."

"He's willing to work, so he's not taking the easy way," added Quinn. "He's not a one-dimensional person in any fashion."

And as of Monday evening, he'll officially be a Hall of Famer.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.