Watching Joe Nieuwendyk connect with members of Team Canada, it’s easy to forget he has moved into the front office and is no longer a scoring threat each time he jumps over the boards.
It’s been a seamless transition for the classy Nieuwendyk, who is an assistant general manager on Canada’s entry at the 2009 IIHF World Championship.
“The door is always open and I think the players can relate to me,” Nieuwendyk says about his relations with the players wearing Canada’s colors in Switzerland. “Some of the younger guys like to hear stories of what I have experienced and it has been really good.”
Nieuwendyk is a prime candidate for the Hockey Hall of Fame, given his stellar NHL career.
He was a standout player in the U.S. college ranks when the Calgary Flames made him their second overall pick, 27th overall, in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft.
In 1987-88, Nieuwendyk scored 51 goals as a rookie and was the first freshman after Mike Bossy to score 50 or more goals in his rookie season.
He went on to play for Dallas (he joined the Stars in a trade for Jarome Iginla), New Jersey, Toronto and the Florida Panthers, winning three Stanley Cups before a back injury forced him to retire three months into the 2006-07 season. He had 564 goals and 1,126 points in 1,257 regular-season games.
After retiring, he joined the Panthers’ front office and switched to the Maple Leafs last summer.
“The game was great to me for 20 years and I am very fortunate to stay in hockey,” says Nieuwendyk. “It is always a transition and I think it is still a transition. I like being around the players and you have to be able to draw the line.
“But I still talking to them, and in this time of year, playoff time and world championship time, it is still not totally out of you that you want to be on the ice sometimes. But realistically I know those days are gone.”
When Canadian general manager Doug Armstrong assembled his management staff for the world championship, Nieuwendyk was a natural. They had a relationship from when Armstrong was first an assistant GM of the Stars and then the GM.
From about the midway point of the NHL season to the moment the roster for the Worlds was announced, Nieuwendyk was involved in every aspect of the player selection.
He says the process was an eye-opener.
“I think we know the players well enough and once we started to put the names on paper, we had a huge list. We worked on line combinations. We know these players well enough and who will work with each other,” says Nieywendyk.
“With about 40 games to go, our conference calls were once every two weeks and then they picked up as we got closer to the end. But we really didn’t know until the last week of the season who was in and who was out. So we had to keep an eye on a lot of players until the end of the season. “
Nieuwendyk has first-hand experience about what it means to represent Canada on the world stage. He has worn Canada’s jersey four times in international tournaments – the 1986 IIHF World Junior Championship, 1990 IIHF World Championship and 19 Olympic Winter Games.
“To be part of that, to have a gold medal, it was an incredible experience,” he says of his 2002 experience. “I had 13 members of my family there and it was awesome. And to have it so close to home, and how important it was. That was one of the biggest things and you now know what people in Canada were doing (on the day of the gold medal game).
The 2009 IIHF World Championship marks the first time Nieuwendyk is working on the management side of things for Hockey Canada. He says that experience has brought him a new appreciation for the world tournament.
“It is good. I have been involved as a player and played a few times but to get to know these (Hockey Canada) guys and the work that they do and the work that goes into it in putting it together. Canada is second to nobody as far as the way they organize and take care of things.”
“Just to see the different countries and what it means to their fans and the excitement within those countries, and all the work behind the scene. It is quite an ordeal and when you are a player you do not see everything involved.
As for his future, Nieuwendyk was asked whether he would like to become an NHL GM.
“I think it is early to tell. I still enjoy hockey. I am passionate about the game and I find it intriguing putting a group of guys together to come to a common goal of winning. I love talking hockey and figuring out the puzzle.”