Johnson: Ex-teammates weigh in on Nieuwendyk, the man about to be feted by the Flames on Friday night
Sniper and hero of Calgary’s 1989 Stanley Cup championship will be put in the rafters in Forever a Flame ceremony
Over the course of 577 games and 314 goals modelling this town’s most sought-after designer label, people became accustomed to seeing Joe Nieuwendyk ambush goaltenders.
But . . . his own guy?
On the street? In broad daylight?
“We’re practising at the Corral one day,” Ottawa goalie coach Rick Wamsley is sort of half-heartedly complaining Wednesday morning, with the Sens in town. “You had to carry your bag across the street. Now this might come as a shock to you, but I wasn’t playing next game, so I had to do a little bit extra after practice.
“So I’m walking back, by myself, middle of winter, and Nieuwendyk and (Gary) Roberts hid in the pine trees. And they . . . attacked me. No other way to describe it. ATTACKED me. Held me down. Took my bag. Throwing my s--- all over the place.
“It was like the scene out of the Wizard of Oz, right? Remember the Scarecrow, when they rip the stuffing out of him? ‘Help! Help! My hand’s over there!’ My leg’s over there! My stomach’s over there!’
“Instead, it was ‘My blocker’s over there! My skate’s over there! My pad’s over there!’
“Stuff was . . . everywhere.
“And then they leave me, lying there, and run in the room, laughing.”
Ah, well. Joe Nieuwendyk left a lot of goalies cursing in exasperation. More than he could ever begin to count.
From those early days as Joe Who — (“Joe Nieuwendyk for Kent Nilsson?” snorted one indignant newspaper column lede when GM Cliff Fletcher parlayed the second-round pick plucked from the Minnesota North Stars in exchange for the Magic Man into an Ivy League centreman with an unspellable surname. “It stinks!”) — to Calder Trophy winner to Stanley Cup champion to team captain to franchise icon.
And now, up to the rafters of the Scotiabank Saddledome, following defenceman Al MacInnis, the second recipient of the Forever a Flame fete Friday night.
(Why the organization doesn’t simply retire the man’s No. 25 jersey in the conventional way and be done with it remains an unexplained mystery ranking right up there with Stonehenge, UFO crop circles and the Bermuda Triangle, but no matter).
For those who were around then, who remember, recollections abound. Those hands, soft as eiderdown or as sharp and lethal as a serpent’s tongue, depending on what was required to solve a goalie. The courage as uncompromising D-men as fierce as Craig Ludwig and Nieuwendyk’s brother-in-law Jeff Beukeboom snapped sticks over his calves like dry twigs as he took up squatter’s rights in front of the opposition net. Slinging that famous pass across to Lanny McDonald for the go-ahead goal on Cup-clinching night, May 25th at hockey’s universal place of worship, the old Montreal Forum.
So many cameo keepsakes.
Nothing, no one, it seemed, could stem the flow of Nieuwendyk goals.
Hakan Loob, the super-slick Swede who left too early, was around at the start, manning Nieuwendyk’s right flank. During that gobsmacking 51-goal rookie season that the Whitby wonder put up — an individual campaign that continues to rank among the most memorable in franchise annals — Loob rang up 56 assists to go along with 50 goals and 106 points.
They just kind of hit it off, like milk and cookies, Spock and Kirk or Simon and Garfunkel.
“The details are always a little fuzzy when you reconstruct things 25 or 26 years later,” says Loob, now 53, from his home in Karlstad, having risen from playing legend to general manager to the role of president of hockey operations of his boyhood club, Färjestad. “But Nieuwy, me and Robs, we kind of found each other fairly quick, became a line that could play together every night. We never really got tossed around and developed a chemistry.
“Nieuwy did such a great job right away. He showed a lot of spirit, a lot of self-confidence, right off the start. Adapted so quickly. Not like a rookie at all.”
Nieuwendyk’s chief asset as a player, in Hakan Loob’s opinion?
“Intelligence. Very intelligent hockey player. If you score 32 goals on the power play, mainly in front of the net and down low, people are going to be talking mainly about your hands and your shot, obviously. But I thought he had a touch of European style in him. Right away, he knew how to hang onto the puck in the zone, didn’t panic or throw it away, was willing stay there not only for five seconds, but for 10 or 15 seconds to create a good scoring chance.
“Playing with him 5-on-5, I really did think he was a smart player. Very patient.
“Mike Eaves, same thing. I don’t know whether it was the college background, like Nieuwy’s, but both those guys just suited me well. He showed in the years after I left that whenever he went, whoever he played with, he could adjust.”
Joe Nieuwendyk would leave Calgary in late ’95 and go on to be part of additional Stanley Cup championship teams in Dallas and Jersey, add a miniature Conn Smythe Trophy to his curio cabinet and an Olympic gold medal at Salt Lake City in 2002, continuing to carve out a career that would culminate into Hall of Fame induction.
His days of ambushing goaltenders, be they foe or (much to Rick Wamsley’s chagrin) friend, have long passed, of course. Friday, though, a bunch of the old gang and his old fans will gather to celebrate those feats, his salad days at the old stomping grounds.
When Hakan Loob decided for family reasons to uproot from Calgary and the NHL, move back home to Sweden to continue his playing career in the ecstatic wake of the ’89 Cup triumph, the Forever a Flame idea was decades away, of course.
He, like a lot of people, believed at the time though that where Joe Nieuwendyk was concerned that concept would turn out to be a literal thing.
“You always wonder why, and I can’t really say I knew what was happening when he left Calgary. You always thought he’d just be a franchise player there. Forever. Always. He was go good. Scored so many goals. Was so consistent. Meant so much to the franchise. But things happen. Nothing’s sacred.
“He went other places and enjoyed a lot of success. Which is part of why he was a great player. For me, though, and a lot of other people I’m sure, he’ll always be a Calgary Flame.
“So he certainly deserves the honours; to be up there, in the roof, with Lanny (McDonald) and those guys. No one deserves it more.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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