It’s more than luck for Niedermayer – By Pierre LeBrun
It’s more than luck for Niedermayer
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com
They say when you turn 40 you begin to reflect on your life, examine what you’ve achieved, determine what you still hope to accomplish.
As far as hockey goes, Scott Niedermayer checked all the boxes — and did so way before 40.
Four-time Stanley Cup champion, Norris Trophy winner, Conn Smythe Trophy winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist, Memorial Cup champion, world junior gold, men’s IIHF world gold, World Cup of Hockey title … honestly, was it all a dream?
“I do feel tremendously blessed and fortunate that I was in those situations,” Niedermayer, 40, told ESPN.com recently as his Hockey Hall of Fame induction approached. “A lot of these things are out of your control even if you’re doing everything right. I was real fortunate to be in situations where a lot of the things out of my control were done very well. I think I was aware enough to know how fortunate I was. I just stumbled into one great situation after another almost from the beginning.”
Right, because he had almost nothing to do with it. But that’s Scott Niedermayer: humble to the bone.
“I don’t think you can look at all the championships that have followed him around and say it’s just a coincidence,” former Anaheim Ducks teammate Chris Pronger told ESPN.com. “When you’re the guy, a top-two defenseman on all these teams and somehow keep bringing home the hardware, I don’t think it’s a coincidence anymore.”
The winning started early
Even before the world junior title with Canada (1990) and the Memorial Cup championship with Kamlooops (1992), Niedermayer got accustomed to winning.
“It started almost right out of the gates, growing up playing in Cranbrook [British Columbia], the coaches I had growing up were very good and understood the game,” Niedermayer said. “Len Bousquet coached our team for the most part in pee wee and bantam, a very good teacher who made it fun. We won two provincial titles in pee wee and bantam, so already at a young age I was believing that I could win, that we could win, learning how to win.”
Three junior seasons in Kamloops from 1989-92 began to set the bar, as Niedermayer established himself as a top NHL prospect and led the Blazers to a pair of Western Hockey League titles, plus the national championship in 1992 where he was named Memorial Cup MVP.
“Kamloops was such a great organization with great coaches and players,” said Niedermayer, who had Ken Hitchcock and Tom Renney as head coaches there and played alongside the likes of Darryl Sydor, Corey Hirsch and Darcy Tucker. “Already I had been fortunate before even getting to the NHL, had the opportunity to be in good situations and learn and understand and build confidence that if you did things the right way, you could win.”
Welcome to New Jersey
Niedermayer arrived to a Devils team in 1992-93 that was on the cusp of beginning a special era, and the third overall pick from the 1991 NHL entry draft quickly established himself with a 40-point season (11-29) that earned him NHL All-Rookie team honors.
“As a young D-man, I really could not have asked for a more perfect situation, first year in the NHL to be playing alongside so many great veterans, just watching what they did, [Slava] Fetisov and [Alexei] Kasatonov were there, I roomed and played with Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver; that’s a pretty impressive list of accomplished, veteran defensemen. You couldn’t have picked a better situation. Just another blessing in my career,” Niedermayer said.
The ‘Freak of Nature’
Scott Niedermayer could skate all night, and yet it seemed like he never broke a sweat.
Chris Pronger began laughing when recounting it.
“I mean it’s amazing, he’s one of the only guys I’ve ever seen take a two-minute shift, come off not because he’s tired but because he figures he should let someone else play. It’s unbelievable,” Pronger said.
“We’re in Salt Lake City [for the 2002 Olympics], I’m just dying — elevation, big ice surface — I’m dying and I look over at him and he’s out there skating up and down the ice and all over the place as only Scotty can and you’re wondering if he’s ever going to get tired.”
Former Ducks GM Brian Burke, who brought Niedermayer to Anaheim, said it’s more than anecdotal.
“He’s a physical phenomenon,” Burke told ESPN.com. “They [the Ducks] put a heart monitor on him in a game once. He came off after a long, hard shift chasing someone around, and his heart rate after probably an 80-second shift was like 190. For you or me that would have been 260, we would have collapsed and they would have had the paddles out. I’d say the average player would be around 210, 215, maximum exertion for a brief period, he would sit down on the bench and get it back to a resting heart rate in less than a minute. That’s impossible for the average person, that’s impossible for the average NHL player. You’re talking about a freak of nature. This is a guy whose cardio system is a veritable machine; this is an F1 car. No other player on the team could touch that.”
The Devils broke through with their first trip to the conference finals in 1993-94, losing a heartbreaker to the eventual Cup champion and rival Rangers, before bringing home New Jersey’s first Stanley Cup in 1994-95.
With superstar goalie Martin Brodeur in net, hard-hitting Hall of Famer Stevens and the silky-smooth Niedermayer leading the way, the Devils would be a juggernaut for a decade, winning three Cups overall between 1995 and 2003.
In those early years with a defensive Devils team, Niedermayer honed his skills at both ends of the ice.
“Nieds became a complete player,” Brodeur told ESPN.com recently. “For us, he was an effortless player; you could play him as many minutes as you wanted and he’d come back to the room without a drip of sweat. He was the first on the forecheck and the first one back, that’s how scary he was of a player. I was really fortunate to have him as a teammate. Between him and Scotty, that’s two Hall of Famers and it tells you the type of defense I had in front of me.”
And yet, during these early years of success in the mid-to-late 1990s, Niedermayer also had moments of frustration. The offensively gifted defenseman felt caged in at times by head coach Jacques Lemaire’s trapping system.
“Really, if I’m honest and I look back at the whole projection of things early in my career, there were definitely times where I was frustrated and I wasn’t happy with my situation; a young player that probably thought he knew more than I did,” Niedermayer said. “I had no complaints in the first few years because I was just happy to be in the NHL, but as a few years went by, maybe around 1996 or ’97, Lemaire was there and we were still playing the same way and I wanted more offensively, I felt I could contribute more, and I really sort of butted heads with him for a while.”
Lemaire also recalls that period.
“Nieder had the press that was putting in his mind that he’s an offensive player and I was holding him back and I think at the time he started to believe that,” Lemaire told ESPN The Magazine’s Craig Custance recently. “He felt he could be a better offensive player if I would just let him go and not correct the defensive part of his game.
“You know what, at times, when you get older you start to realize that it’s not only offense that wins games. You got to play well defensively. When you do, you do have less pressure on you. You can play both side of the ice.”
Indeed, as the years have gone on, Niedermayer looks back at that time in a different light, appreciating what Lemaire was doing.
“Now that I look where I’m at, you look at it from a different angle and can appreciate his stubbornness and his beliefs in how he wanted things done,” Niedermayer said. “I know I benefited, and our team benefited, from learning to play that way.
“I thought I knew everything then but I didn’t. Sure it would have been nice to score a couple more goals, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned a lot and I’m thankful for it. I can tell my younger self that now.”
Lemaire, in kind, leaves no doubt where he views Niedermayer as a player.
“His skating ability was over 95 percent of the guys in the league,” said the former coach and Hall of Fame player in his own right. “I remember at a time when he started to be better defensively and realized that it was important, I used to tell him, ‘Hey, you can go behind the net, I know you’re capable of coming back.’ He knew the importance of that time, how important it was to play good defensively. Then he would move up, if we lose the puck, he’d just curl and come back and with his speed, he was back in the play.
“I remember [Paul] Coffey could also do that because of his skating but it’s probably only them and [Bobby] Orr. There’s only a handful of guys who could do that.”
Finally a Norris
It took 12 NHL seasons before Niedermayer finally took home the Norris Trophy as the league’ top defenseman in 2003-04, interrupting what otherwise would be a string of Nicklas Lidstrom awards.
Before that, Ray Bourque, Brian Leetch, Paul Coffey, Chris Chelios, Rob Blake, Al MacInnis and Pronger had won the award during Niedermayer’s first decade in the league. During the days he battled with Lemaire, Niedermayer might have wondered if he’d ever win one given how the Devils’ system limited his offensive production.
But it all came together in 2004, and while individual accomplishment don’t matter nearly as much as team achievements, it’s clear that winning the Norris meant a lot to Niedermayer.
“It did, it did,” he said. “I can sit here and say all the right things about how the team comes first, which I do believe in, but we’re also human and to be recognized for something like that was special. The neat thing about that is that early in my career I butted heads with how I wanted to play and then sort of coming to terms with playing a certain way and still getting rewarded for my play even while concerning myself with those things [more] than actually trying to win that trophy. That trophy came about because I was trying to do things to help our team. So that made it pretty special, too.”
As it turned out, that Norris Trophy would be Niedermayer’s swan song in New Jersey. The 2004-05 season was wiped out by a lockout, and the star blueliner became an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2005.
What followed next shocked Devils fans, but certainly not people close to Niedermayer.
It started with the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. The Devils edged out the Ducks in a seven-game series which pitted the Niedermayer brothers, Scott and Rob, against each other.
That handshake line won’t soon be forgotten.
“I just remember feeling terrible for him,” Scott Niedermayer said of his younger brother. “He had been to his second Cup final and come away short-handed both times. It was pretty tough to see. I had already won a couple of Stanley Cups at that point. My mother had said during that final that she was kind of hoping for him to balance things out. And I understood that. So maybe it did plant the seed.”
The seed that perhaps they could be NHL teammates one day.
It was further planted when the two brothers skated for Canada at the 2004 IIHF world championship in Prague, with the Niedermayers winning gold together.
“That probably made things progress even more, to realize that maybe it could happen,” Niedermayer said. “As we both got older, the opportunity arose, it definitely became a thought in our mind.”
Which is why when Brian Burke became general manager of the Ducks in June 2005, he had a plan to reunite the brothers in Anaheim.
“I felt the single most important factor in this negotiation would be a Niedermayer not named Scott. We thought Robbie was the key,” Burke told ESPN.com. “So when I got the job, I went up and met with Robbie (at his ranch outside of Cranbrook).”
Rob Niedermayer, Burke says, told the new GM he wasn’t sure he was staying in Anaheim once his deal expired because the Ducks weren’t committed enough physically, weren’t tough enough to win. Burke promised him that would change with him on board.
Then, Burke needed Rob under contract before approaching Scott.
“It was clear to us we had to re-sign Robbie before the agent (who represented both brothers) would even think of talking to us about Scott,” Burke said. “So we did that. Rumor is we did the contracts together and that Robbie got a certain number in exchange for Scotty getting a certain number, but I would never do that. We did Robbie first, then took a break, and then came back and talked about Scotty.”
Burke had a sales pitch to Scott that summer that no other NHL GM had: Rob.
“I said to Scotty, ‘If there were 90 teams in the league, you’d have 90 offers, so this isn’t the case of me being any hockey genius being here,'” Burke said. “I asked him, ‘You tell me, what’s going to make this decision?’ And he said, ‘I want to play in the Western Conference, it’s more wide open, and I want to play with my brother.’ That’s how it came about, it was that simple: he wanted to play with Robbie.”
But it also meant telling Lou Lamoriello he was leaving New Jersey; a moment Scott Niedermayer will never forget.
“It was a really difficult decision,” Niedermayer recalled. “It’s funny because when I was younger, when I was a bit frustrated I probably would have thought free agency would have been the best thing in the world and I probably would have made the wrong choice at that point. But this was the right time, playing with my brother seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it was a new challenge, that was another part of it for me, I just felt going somewhere new to freshen things up in my career, that interested me. You combine those two things, that’s why I made the decision. But it was hard. It was only degrees away from picking up the phone and telling Lou, ‘I want to come back.’ It was that close.”
Lamoriello even offered more money than Anaheim, the maximum under the cap for a player at the time in the new system.
“Lou did what he could, no doubt about it,” Niedermayer said. “It’s not my proudest moment in a way when I think about having to leave New Jersey, but the way it worked out in Anaheim I would never change it.”
It was a crushing loss for the Devils, but Lamoriello didn’t hold any bitterness.
“I understood, I respect him. Scotty is a very intelligent individual and tremendous family person,” Lamoriello told ESPN.com. “You have to respect decisions. I don’t think any less of him for any decision he’s ever made because I respect his thought process too much. You never look back.”
Lamoriello welcomed Niedermayer back to the Devils’ family last season when he retired his No. 27. For Niedermayer, it was nice to have that night in order to properly wrap up his time in New Jersey, rather than having his last memory be his exit.
“It meant a lot in that way, for sure,” Niedermayer said. “New Jersey was very good to me; I learned a lot there under Lou and the coaches that came through.”
“I don’t know what superlative you can give without it being true and understated,” Lamoriello said of Niedermayer. “When he came here to stay, he just made an immediate impact. He’s one of the most talented players we’ve had here who could play in every situation. And handled himself on and off the ice in a superlative way. What he did for us is very difficult to explain in words.”
A Cup with Robbie
A new challenge awaited in Anaheim, but it should surprise no one that wherever Niedermayer goes, winning follows.
Another huge acquisition in Pronger gave the Ducks a formidable 1-2 punch on the blue line, and in June 2007, the state of California won its first Stanley Cup as Anaheim beat Ottawa in five games.
“It was a pretty unsettled franchise when I signed here, team being sold, management and coaches changing, players coming and going,” Niedermayer said. “Pretty lucky again how it all turned out.”
Winning a Cup with his brother? Well, that was too good to be true.
“It was pretty amazing to have the Cup and hand it to him, just to see how much it meant to him,” Niedermayer said. “I’ll never forget that moment. It was pretty cool for sure.”
In Anaheim, a whole new group got to appreciate Scott Niedermayer for the player he was.
“The phenomenal thing about his offensive stats is that with us, he always played against the other team’s top players,” Burke said. “In a shutdown role, he still put up numbers.”
Pronger said it’s the other side of the puck that people still don’t look at enough when it comes to Niedermayer.
“Everybody always looks at the skating ability, and like a lot of Hall of Famers that go in, they seem to have really good offensive numbers, but a lot of times what gets lost in the shuffle is their defensive side of the game,” Pronger said. “Who are the guys out there in the last minute trying to protect a lead? You look at his career, from junior all the way through, he’s always been the guy that’s out there protecting the one-goal lead, making the smart play, making the right play at the right time.
“As you get older, you learn to look at different leaders and captains around the league and you pick up things from them. I learned an awful lot just from watching Scotty; learning how to just take things in stride, nothing ever bothers the guy, it’s a shrug of the shoulders and keep going. He was a very composed person, which keeps the team focused. Having that composure coupled with talent and ability, there are very few guys who have that.”
That 2007 Cup — with Niedermayer named Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP — left him feeling like he had nothing else to achieve, having won it all with his brother, having won every title imaginable in his career.
He agonized over his playing future for the next half-season, sitting at home while his team began defense of the Cup title without him.
“Throughout my career, I’d see a guy have a tough time with that decision and I remember thinking, ‘How hard can it be? Either you want to play or you don’t,'” Niedermayer chuckled. “But when you get in that situation yourself, you realize it’s not so simple. When I first flirted with the idea, we had just won in Anaheim. I probably should have never let it enter my thought process at that point. I should have just let time pass. But I jumped to a quick thought that maybe it was it. Brian Burke had been around hockey longer than me and wisely gave me time, allowed me to take a while. And he was right.”
Niedermayer returned for the final 48 games of the 2007-08 season and played two more full seasons after that before calling it quits for real.
“The best thing that came out of that is how much I enjoyed the last few years after I came back, just realizing that it will end; a great day was being at the rink,” he said. “I viewed my career in a different set of eyes. I really enjoyed the last two and half years maybe more than any other time in my career.”
Wrap it in Gold, please
The Hollywood script wasn’t over for Niedermayer just yet.
The veteran blueliner with the grey-speckled beard captained Team Canada on home soil, in his native province, to a thrilling Olympic gold medal in February 2010 at the Vancouver Games.
What a send-off.
“To get an opportunity to be in the Olympics so close to home and to win it in the fashion we did, the Olympics overall were just an amazing event for Canada, what a way to finish it off,” he said. “It was a pretty cool experience for sure.
“And 2002 was special, too.”
Right. We forgot to mention Niedermayer was front and center as Canada snapped a 50-year Olympic gold medal drought in Salt Lake City.
You know, just another ho-hum moment in Niedermayer’s career.
“Maybe I should be even more thankful than I am, because I’ve been pretty fortunate,” he said. One can just imagine what a trophy case looks like with all these hockey trophies and medals.
Except you won’t find that in Niedermayer’s house.
“My mom has them somewhere,” he said. “A few people have come over to our house and they ask if they can see this or that; we don’t really have any of that here. In some ways that surprises people but it shouldn’t really surprise them if they know me at all. One day I guess we’ll have to do those things justice and have a little place for them.”
He’ll have to buy another home just to house them all.
“I’ll take my share of credit but there’s a lot of credit that goes to lot of other people,” he says once again, deflecting.
“To me, the success I had, a lot of it was team-orientated and it wouldn’t have happened without great people along the way. I benefited from great coaches, great organizations, unbelievable teammates, my family, so maybe this [Hall of Fame induction] means even more because of all that. It took a lot of people to make it happen.”
Said Burke: “I’ve been very fortunate in this business to have some great players and great people, and he’s right up at the top of the list.”
Still in hockey
Most people always thought Niedermayer would never be seen once he retired. You could see him living in the middle of the woods in B.C., as his avid love for nature and a strong belief in protecting the environment had many thinking he’d grow that beard out and disappear.
“You know what? You weren’t far off. If I would have had to guess, that’s probably what I thought I’d be too,” Niedermayer said with a laugh. “But everyone is happy here [Southern California], the kids are happy, we’re still here and I’m enjoying it.”
Instead, Niedermayer has a coaching job with the Ducks that allows him to stay at home for most of the team’s road trips so he can spend more time with his wife and four boys.
“That’s really why I retired from playing is to have that, it’s pretty important to me,” Niedermayer said. “And yet, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun getting to the rink and trying to help out and working with some of the younger guys. It’s really the best of both worlds right now. I’m lucky.”
There’s that luck word again. What do they say about making your own luck?