Talk about a trial run gone right. Joe Nieuwendyk works with Team Canada as assistant GM at the World Championships and spends a month with Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett in the process. Three weeks later, the Stars name Nieuwendyk as their new GM, thus ending the experiment of having co-GM's (Brett Hull and Les Jackson).
As Tippett observed, "I believe he's ready for this. He is very methodical, very thoughtful in his approach. He thinks things through before he reacts to them. He was a hard player to play against because he would outthink you. I would imagine it's going to be the same as a GM."
Of course, Tippett coaching Team Canada while Nieuwendyk was part of the management team is hardly the only tie that makes sense in this move. Nieuwendyk was the key figure in the Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup victory, leading the team in scoring and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The Stars acquired him from the Calgary Flames in 1995 for a prospect named Jarome Iginla, and Nieuwendyk spent seven seasons with the Dallas organization. It was a lot to give up, but the Stars knew they were getting a hard-nosed two-way player who produced offensively. Plus, he had a Stanley Cup on his resume with the 1989 Flames.
Just like they knew what they were getting then, they know what they are getting now: a classy, up-and-coming executive who has had his sights set on this role for several years. Nieuwendyk hoped his opportunity might come in Florida where he was Jacques Martin's assistant with the Panthers, but the timing wasn't right.
"I appreciated my time with Jacques," Nieuwendyk told me on Wednesday. "We all would like to stay in the game -- it has given us so much and meant everything to all of who have played -- and the Panthers gave me that opportunity."
Ironically, the Stars' official announcement came on the same day that Martin left the Panthers to coach the Montreal Canadiens. Sounds like more than mere coincidence to me that the Stars acted swiftly, circumventing any potential interest the Panthers surely would have had in Nieuwendyk. According to him, though, there was nothing of the sort.
"Jacques' press conference was going on at exactly the same time, I think," Nieuwendyk said. "No, what Florida was doing didn't impact what we were doing in Dallas in the least."
This past season, Nieuwendyk worked for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a special assistant to the general manager. That's an experiencing-building position, but with Brian Burke, Dave Nonis and Cliff Fletcher all on the Leafs' management team, the role for Nieuwendyk was hard to define. There wasn't much room to move, or enough to do. That doesn't mean the time spent wasn't valuable.
"Going to Toronto was an easy decision," he says. "When Cliff (a former Flames GM) went there, it was like going home, really on two fronts."
Working under the man who drafted him, and being close to where he grew up was a cozy arrangement while Nieuwendyk furthered his interest in hockey operations. The Leafs facilitating and nurturing that interest made him a viable GM candidate. His front office work is also part of a recent rash of high-end former players who are pursuing roles in upper management: Steve Yzerman in Detroit and with Team Canada, Al MacInnis in St. Louis, and Ron Francis in Raleigh. They've all become part of management teams and with that comes opportunity to be in charge one day.
That day for Nieuwendyk is now. Does he have enough experience? Time will tell, but he has always been a quick study. During his sophomore season, he led Cornell to the Eastern Conference Championship and a berth in the final four -- before the ECAC split with the advent of Hockey East and the final four became the Frozen Four . In Calgary, he was in just his second full season with the Flames when they won the Stanley Cup. He registered back-to-back 51-goal campaigns in his first two years in the NHL and won the 1987-88 Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year.
Later in his career, the New Jersey Devils coveted Nieuwendyk's experience and again it paid off as he was part of his third Stanley Cup-winning team, in 2003 when the Devils prevailed over the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks in seven games. Now the Stars again want Nieuwendyk. I asked him about his new team and he already had the tone of a GM assessing his club.
"I don't see us as a 12th-place team in the (western) conference," he said. "I've just come from two organizations that were in the process of identifying and developing some top six forwards. We have a good group here already. And with captain Brendan Morrow returning, that only makes us stronger. Marty (Turco) had an off year and I'd expect him to bounce back, as competitive and proud a guy as he is. I'm excited by what we have and what we're capable of"
And what of former co-GM's Hull and Jackson? Nieuwendyk doesn't foresee any issues or conflicts.
"I've already spoken with Hully," he said. "He was good, ready for his new role. And Les is so strong and has been with the organization so long, I intend to lean on him a lot."
I see nothing but success on the horizon for Nieuwendyk at the helm of the Stars. There's nothing in the past that indicates otherwise.