The question is not whether Joe Nieuwendyk, the Calgary Flames' high-scoring center, will win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. The question is whether the engravers can squeeze his name onto the trophy. Or will they take the easy way out and abbreviate? In Scrabble, Nieuwendyk's surname could net a clever player 63 points on a triple-word score. That's four more than the number of goals Nwndyk—as readers of box scores have come to know him—will have at the end of this season if he stays on his 32-goals-in-42-games pace. That would be the most goals by a rookie since Mike Bossy scored 53 for the Islanders in 1977-78.
Not too bad for a fellow pegged by the NHL's Central Scouting Service as only a mid-fifth-round pick in the 1985 entry draft. So how do you skip from the Ivy League to the NHL without missing a beat, as Nieuwendyk did last March when he left Cornell for Calgary? "I try to take it all in stride," says the 21-year-old Nieuwendyk. "I don't want people to think I think I'm anything special."
The Flames' rookie coach, Terry Crisp, knows different. "The stars are going to clear from his eyes," Crisp says. "He'll probably cool off. But he's still going to be there for us. Joey's going to be around for a long time." So will Crisp, if his Flames keep up their current level of play; through Sunday they had the NHL's second-best record (27-13-5) and were only a point behind Edmonton in the Smythe Division.
A good bit of Nieuwendyk's success—19 goals, in fact—can be traced to Calgary's potent power play. His job on the power play is to plant his 6'1", 175-pound frame in front of the goalie and go for rebounds and deflections. He might as well wear a sign that says, "Cross-check me hard." It seems he takes 20 hard hits in the back per night. "Just part of the job," says Nieuwendyk, who leads the NHL in power-play goals.
January 25, 1988
"He stands in there and takes it," says Edmonton coach Glen Sather, admiringly. "He is tough."
"Joe's been getting that since he was nine years old," says Gordon Nieuwendyk, Joe's father, an auto repair shop owner, who moved to Whitby, Ont., from the Netherlands with his wife, Joanne, in 1958. "Other teams always said, 'Stop Nieuwendyk and we can win.' "
Joe is the youngest of four Nieuwendyk children, all of them athletes. "My parents have seen the inside of a lot of arenas," he says. It is almost unfair that Nieuwendyk should be better at box lacrosse than hockey, but apparently he is. Each spring, barely hours after the ice of Whitby's outdoor rinks had melted, Nieuwendyk and his buddies put away one season's gear and donned another's. As an 18-year-old, Joe led his club lacrosse team to victory in the Minto Cup, Canada's national junior championship, and was named MVP.
Lacrosse hotshots don't have much of a professional future in Canada, or anywhere else, for that matter. So it was not hard for Nieuwendyk to say goodbye, lacrosse; hello, hockey. In 1985 Calgary saw something in Nieuwendyk that the scouting service didn't and drafted him in the second round. Twenty-six players were chosen ahead of him.
"They got a steal," says Wayne Gretzky. Sidelined with a sprained knee, Gretzky watched Calgary's 5-3 loss in Edmonton last week from a luxury box at the Northlands Coliseum. "I watched Joe whenever he was on the ice," says the Great One, who, like Nieuwendyk, played box lacrosse in his youth. Box lacrosse is played in an iceless rink. The boards are left up, and the game is extremely physical. Gretzky is convinced that dodging blows within those cramped confines, "learning to circle and be nifty," taught him to avoid monster hits he would later face in hockey. He figures the training helped Nieuwendyk the same way. Nieuwendyk agrees.
In the Flames' 5-4 win over Edmonton on Oct. 14, Nieuwendyk struck for two goals. That was the first hint of what was to come. Afterward, Gretzky asked teammate Jeff Beukeboom, Nieuwendyk's cousin, rhetorically, "Why didn't he stick with lacrosse?" Since then, Nieuwendyk has had four hat tricks, two of them four-goal games.
Another major reason Nieuwendyk dropped lacrosse was that he lost weight while playing that strenuous sport. The weight loss hurt him on the ice. Lou Reycroft, then the Cornell hockey coach, remembers his delight when Nieuwendyk weighed in at 195 pounds for his sophomore year. "He looked great," says Reycroft. But after registering for classes, Nieuwendyk flew to Whitby to play for the Minto Cup. "He lost 20 pounds in eight days," says Reycroft, now a scout for the Flames. To this day Nieuwendyk must eat till it hurts to maintain weight. "Nice problem to have," says teammate Joey Mullen.
Reycroft first saw Nieuwendyk, then 16, in a Junior B game in Ontario. "He had that flair even then," he says. Reycroft describes Nieuwendyk as "not one of those centers who holds the puck and sifts options. Joe is a generator."
A scholarship to Cornell was arranged. "I knew he would be an impact player—I had no idea how soon," says Reycroft, using almost exactly the same words that Nieuwendyk's coaches at Calgary are uttering now. Reycroft remembers Nieuwendyk as confident beyond his years. Most freshmen are content to hide in the corner, but, says Reycroft, "come game time, Joe was talking it up and rapping guys on the shin pads."
By his junior year, Nieuwendyk was doing "basically anything he wanted to," says Reycroft, whose toughest job was finding linemates who could keep up with him. "I mean this when I say it. By then, Joe was the best college hockey player I had ever seen." When Cornell's season ended, the Flames brought Nieuwendyk up for nine games. "I was a big Maple Leafs fan growing up," he says. "Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald—I idolized those guys. Then I walk in the dressing room and there's Lanny, a teammate. It was too much." In nine games Nieuwendyk had five goals.
"Those nine games gave us an indication, but no one in his right mind could have expected this," says Flames assistant coach Pierre Page. Of Nieuwendyk's slightly bowlegged skating style, Page says, "People say the same thing about Gretzky. Nieuwendyk's not fast. But he anticipates, reads the play like very few people can. He's good at changing gears. And he is fast with the puck."
After the season, Nieuwendyk will return to Ithaca, N.Y., where he recently bought a house on Cayuga Lake. Nothing palatial, just three bedrooms, a big kitchen and a porch. But there should be enough room, on the mantle or on an odd shelf, for the Calder Trophy.