He recently retired following a 20-year NHL career and the next stop for three-time Stanley Cup champion Joe Nieuwendyk might just be the Hall of Fame.
For Joe Nieuwendyk, the end of his NHL career was, well, matter of fact. "It wasn't too much of a shock," says Nieuwendyk. "My back would flare, but I've always been able to rebound and play. This time it didn't. So I went to the Cleveland Clinic, and the doctors recommended I quit. I'm really at peace with it."
So ended one of the greatest careers of the 68 Ivy League NHL players, one that may land Nieuwendyk in the NHL Hall of Fame.
Cornell came to Nieuwendyk's attention early, in the form of assistant hockey coach Bill Murray. "I was playing at a junior tournament in Pickering, Ont. -- 15 years old -- when he asked if I would like to visit Cornell," remembers Nieuwendyk. "I didn't know a lot about Cornell, but I went on a recruiting trip and it was one of the most beautiful campuses I had ever seen. But if it wasn't for hockey I wouldn't have been looking at the Ivies."
Nieuwendyk came to Cornell intending to play both lacrosse and hockey (he was on Canada's lacrosse junior national champion team while still in high school), but found that "hockey was too much" in college. Majoring in business, Nieuwendyk found pursuing athletics and academics "difficult at times. Academics made me learn a lot about responsibility," says Nieuwendyk. "I grew up a lot in school."
On the ice, however, Nieuwendyk had no problems. He was named Ivy Rookie of the Year in 1985 after helping the Big Red to their third straight Ivy title. It was a heady time. "The atmosphere at Lynah rink," he remembers. "It was an incredible atmosphere. I couldn't believe how exciting at was to be there."
He followed this up with an outstanding sophomore season, earning first-team All-Ivy, All-ECAC and All-American honors as he helped Cornell to the ECAC title. He was also chosen by the Calgary Flames in the second round of the 1985 draft, which presented a dilemma for Nieuwendyk. "I was approached by Calgary," he says, "but Coach Reycroft's advice was to stay. It was sound advice. I knew I wasn't ready to leave."
In his final season at Cornell, Nieuwendyk repeated his first-team All-American honors and was named Ivy League Player of the Year. He also knew it was time to turn pro, this time with Reycroft's support. After a brief stint with the Canadian National team he began his NHL career with the Flames, becoming only the second rookie to score more than 50 goals his rookie season and winning the Calder trophy as the NHL's best rookie player. He repeated his 50-goal performance the next season as the Flames won the Stanley Cup.
Nieuwendyk would never reach the 50-goal mark again in his career but he would be a part of two more Stanley Cup winners with the Dallas Stars (1999) and New Jersey Devils (2003). The second time around he told Helene Thomas of the Los Angeles Tribune "I was a young guy when I went through this 10 years ago, and I don't think I had the appreciation that I do now."
He would not repeat the mistake. When the Stars won the Stanley Cup, every player on the winning team gets to have the Cup for one day. Nieuwendyk chose to take it back to Cornell. There his favorite teacher, agricultural economics professor Dan Sisler, who is blind, visited the Cup. "Seeing him running his hands over the Cup was pretty incredible," he remembers.
When the Devils won the Cup in 2003 he returned it to Ithaca, this time for Alumni Weekend. Part of the visit was a fundraiser at Lynah Rink for fellow Cornell hockey player Mike Tallman, who was Nieuwendyk's teammate in 1986-87 and suffered a spinal cord injury in a pickup game earlier that year. More than 3,500 people attended the fundraiser, where they were able to meet Nieuwendyk and see the Cup.
But then Ithaca, and Cornell, have "been a big part of my life" for some time, according to Nieuwendyk. When he turned pro "the first thing I did" was buy a house on Cayuga Lake. "We go back every summer," he says.
In 1998 Nieuwendyk was chosen for Canada's Olympic hockey team. "We got off the train in Nagano," he remembers, "thousands of people were flocking towards Wayne Gretsky." Unlike some professional athletes, the team stayed at the Olympic Village.
"It was the best way to do it," he says. "The other athletes were in awe of us, but I was excited to be around them. To be in the same buildings as them was awesome." The team didn't medal at Nagano, but when he returned with the team to the Olympics at Salt Lake City, they won the gold medal. "It was 50 years with no [gold] medal," says Nieuwendyk. "It's a great feeling to have the country behind you."
Before closing out his career Nieuwendyk added more honors, namely the 1994-95 King Clancy Memorial Trophy for the "player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community," and the 1999 Conn Smythe Award, given to the playoffs' Most Valuable Player.
Nieuwendyk has had the longest career of any Ivy professional player since Columbia's Eddie Collins ended his 25-year major league baseball career in 1930. When told of this he says "that's pretty interesting. I didn't think I'd play this long. I'm very fortunate." While he and his family, who currently live near his last team, the Florida Panthers, are "trying to figure out where we'll be living," sportswriters began trying to figure out if he would make the NHL Hall of Fame.
"Joe's next stop should be the Hockey Hall of Fame," wrote Wayne Scanlan of the Ottawa Citizen. Will Nieuwendyk be able to "see his name enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame? The guess here is that he will," added Brian Cazeneuve of CNNSI.com. His statistics seem to back up this contention. He's 19th all-time in goals, ahead of such NHL Hall of Famers as Stan Mikita and Maurice "Rocket" Richard.
Perhaps the best comparison, though, is with 2006 NHL Hall of Fame inductee Pat LaFontaine. LaFontaine has 468 goals and 1013 points: Nieuwendyk, 564 goals and 1126 points. In addition, Nieuwendyk is one of only nine NHLers all-time to play on three different Stanley Cup teams.
Nieuwendyk made the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994, and it looks like he'll be adding the NHL Hall of Fame to his many honors. "It would be a great thrill," he says, "a great way to close the book."
— Stephen Eschenbach