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Riding High Driven by his mother's indomitable spirit, veteran Stars center Joe Nieuwendyk is still at the top of his game

Nov. 08, 1999
Nov. 08, 1999

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Nov. 8, 1999

Riding High Driven by his mother's indomitable spirit, veteran Stars center Joe Nieuwendyk is still at the top of his game

The event that epitomizes the implacable spirit of Joanne
Nieuwendyk occurred in a Montreal traffic jam on the night of
May 25, 1989. Joanne's son Joe, then the Calgary Flames' superb
second-year sniper, had just helped his team defeat the
Canadiens 4-2 to win the Stanley Cup in six games. Outside the
Montreal Forum cars lurched along congested Ste. Catherine
Street, and as the Flames' team bus attempted to leave the arena
and squeeze onto the street, the discontented Montreal drivers
refused to yield. Then Joanne took over. She walked to the
middle of the road brandishing a hockey stick and forced the
cars to stop. Horns blared and obscenities pierced the air, but
Joanne refused to move until the bus got into the flow of
traffic and was finally on its way. "She was a fighter and a
fireplug," says Joe Nieuwendyk, now a high-scoring center for
the Dallas Stars. "She's always with me."

This is an article from the Nov. 8, 1999 issue Original Layout

In November 1996, Joanne died of stomach cancer, three months
after the disease had been diagnosed. Joe, the baby among Joanne
and Gordon Nieuwendyk's four children, still thinks of his
mother every day and says that over the past 18 months--as he
pushed himself through excruciating rehabilitation for his
surgically repaired knees and returned to carry the Stars to the
Stanley Cup last spring--her memory has been his greatest
motivation. "Joe called me from the arena in Buffalo after
Dallas won the Cup," says Joe's brother Gil. "The first thing he
said was, 'I wish Mom could have seen this.'"

What she would have seen was Joe winning the Conn Smythe Trophy
as the playoff MVP. She would have seen his league-leading 11
postseason goals, including six game-winners and both Dallas
goals in a pivotal 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 3
of the finals. With those heroics still fresh, last month the
Stars signed Nieuwendyk to a three-year contract extension worth
$15 million. Nieuwendyk had 426 career goals through Sunday, and
he's almost certain to get his 500th while wearing a star on his
chest.

Not many Dallas millionaires hail from Whitby, Ont., a harbor
town 30 miles northeast of Toronto where Joanne and Gordon
migrated from Holland in 1958. All their children--Rick, now 39;
Gil, 38; Wendy, 36; and Joe, 33--played sports, and the boys
were hockey stars. (Wendy played soccer and was a gymnast.)
Joanne became known as Mrs. Whitby for the zeal with which she
clanged her cowbell and led cheers for the home team. She
endeared herself further with her sometimes inexact command of
English. "One of us would get hit, and Mom would yell something
at the guy who hit us like, 'Go fly kite, sir!'" says Rick. "We
loved it."

After hockey season the boys indulged their other passion: box
lacrosse. Rick and Gil played on junior (ages 16-21) teams, and
by 11 Joe was scampering in their cleat marks. Scrawny, with a
baby face, Joe was listed in game programs as the team mascot.
In practice he chased errant passes and toted water bottles, all
for the privilege of playing catch with the big boys. Before
long Joe was flaunting a precocious ability to snap one-timers
past goalies twice his size. At 18, Nieuwendyk led his team to
victory in junior lacrosse's prestigious Minto Cup. "Some of the
things he does to a puck when it's in the air have to be from
lacrosse," says Stars coach Ken Hitchcock. "You just don't learn
those things playing hockey."

What Nieuwendyk refined was the phenomenal hand-eye coordination
that has led to much of his NHL success. Lithe (6'1", 195
pounds) and unremarkable as a skater, Nieuwendyk thrives on a
wickedly accurate lefthanded shot and his unparalleled ability
to redirect pucks in midair. His reactions are so sharp that he
sets up for deflections several feet farther from the net than
most other players. This makes his deflections even more
difficult for goalies to stop because when Nieuwendyk nicks a
puck it has more room to veer and carom before reaching the
goalmouth. "When Joe's on, goalies don't have a chance," says
New York Rangers wing Theo Fleury, who played with Nieuwendyk in
Calgary in his first four seasons in the league, when Joe
averaged 48 goals. "If you shot it at the net and Joe was there,
he'd get a piece of it."

Some of the goals Nieuwendyk scored in last year's postseason
came with such swift and subtle dexterity that you need to see
them in slow motion to appreciate them. There was the tip-in of
defenseman Sergei Zubov's whistling slap shot to beat the
Edmonton Oilers in the fourth and deciding game of their
opening-round series. In Game 2 of the conference semifinals
against the St. Louis Blues, Nieuwendyk picked a spot two inches
over Grant Fuhr's glove and whipped the puck past a defender and
into the net. "As beautiful a goal as I've ever seen," Hitchcock
said at the time. In Game 3 of the Cup finals, Nieuwendyk scored
once by swooping in for a rebound of his shot and later by
corralling a bouncing pass and flipping a shot over a fallen
Dominik Hasek.

All along Nieuwendyk felt he was playing under his mother's
gaze. During the national anthem before Game 7 of the Western
Conference finals against the Colorado Avalanche, Nieuwendyk
stood next to teammate Guy Carbonneau on the blue line at
Reunion Arena. Carbonneau's father, Charles-Aime, had died two
weeks earlier. Nieuwendyk turned to Carbonneau and said, "Your
father's here tonight, and my mother's here tonight, and we're
going to win this game." Nieuwendyk assisted on the first goal,
and Carbonneau got a helper on the game-winning tally in a 4-1
victory.

Last year also marked the end of a long run of playoff distress
for Nieuwendyk, who hadn't advanced past the first round since
the year Joanne stopped traffic. Twice between 1989-90 and
'94-95 the Flames lost on overtime goals in Game 7 of the
opening round. In '96-97, Nieuwendyk's first postseason with
Dallas since he was traded for forward Jarome Iginla in December
'95, the Stars met the same fate. Then, in Dallas's first game
of the '97-98 playoffs, Nieuwendyk was driven into the end
boards by San Jose Sharks defenseman Bryan Marchment and tore
the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, knocking him
out of the postseason. A few weeks after the hit, which was
borderline legal, Nieuwendyk had surgery to repair both knees.
(His left knee had residual damage from a torn ACL he suffered
seven years earlier.)

Nieuwendyk watched the rest of the 1998 playoffs in the
discomfort of his living room. Unable to climb stairs, he moped
about the ground floor of the Dallas home he shared with his
Great Dane, Annie, and his Jack Russell, Tex. The threesome
watched as the Stars advanced to the Western Conference finals
against the eventual Cup champion Detroit Red Wings before
falling in six games. Says Gil, "That was the first time I saw
something disappointing in hockey really get to him. We came to
see him after he got knocked out, and he was heartbroken that he
couldn't help the team."

Nieuwendyk spent that summer working out in the Dallas heat like
an old-time prizefighter. He trained with team conditioning
coach J.J. McQueen in the 100 [degree] weather, performing one
routine on a sizzling asphalt parking lot. McQueen would strap a
harness to Nieuwendyk's back and hook the other end to an
automobile tire. Then Nieuwendyk would drag the tire around the
lot or up a hill. When the Stars began training camp in Vail,
Colo., Nieuwendyk went with them and took his harness along. He
returned to the lineup on Oct. 22, a month ahead of schedule,
and he scored 28 goals in 67 regular-season games.

For all the Stars' dominance (51-19-12 last season), they were a
team that lived on the edge. Two thirds of their regular-season
victories were decided by a goal or two, and they won eight
playoff games by one goal. Nieuwendyk is not the only go-to guy
on the team--right wing Brett Hull and center Mike Modano are
both accomplished scorers--but when a team relies on a strategy
that Hitchcock describes as "trying to win every game 2-1," the
margin for error can be as thin as the ligaments in a man's
knee. "Joe gives us immeasurable confidence," says Hitchcock.
"When he's putting the puck where he wants to, it makes the
whole team feel like we can get a goal when we need one."

Last summer, when it was his turn to keep the Stanley Cup for a
couple of days, Nieuwendyk took it to Whitby. He lugged it to
Iroquois Arena, where he and his brothers had played hockey and
box lacrosse, and he invited the townsfolk to see it. The town
had a brochure printed commemorating the Cup's appearance.

Nieuwendyk also took the Cup to the burger joint he haunted as a
kid and ate french fries with gravy out of it. He brought it to
bars and restaurants and hosted a party for 300 people who drank
enough beer to flood a backyard. At that celebration Joe
whispered to Gordon that he should consider the party a wedding
celebration as well. A month later, in a private ceremony on the
deck of his summer home in Ithaca, N.Y., Nieuwendyk married Tina
Gemmell, his girlfriend of six years.

Nieuwendyk says that his favorite moments with the Cup were
"watching how other people reacted to it." When he gave it to
Rick and Gil, they took it into the middle of an intersection in
Whitby and held it aloft. Traffic couldn't move, but the drivers
didn't care. Horns tooted in appreciation, and joyous shouts
could be heard as the brothers pranced about. Joe, who was
watching them, began to laugh and laugh. He had won a Stanley
Cup, and traffic was at a standstill. The Nieuwendyk spirit was
very much alive.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HARRY BENSON Branching out During an eventful off-season, Nieuwendyk took the Cup for a ride and married his longtime girlfriend.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL

Filling the Net

Among the NHL's active goal-scoring leaders, through Sunday,
only Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille had a better per-game average
than Joe Nieuwendyk (above). Ranked according to goals per game,
here's how the top 10 stacked up. --David Sabino

PLAYER, TEAM GOALS GAMES GOALS PER GAME

Brett Hull, Stars 590 873 0.68
Luc Robitaille, Kings 527 984 0.54
Joe Nieuwendyk, Stars 426 844 0.50
Steve Yzerman, Red Wings 594 1,189 0.50
Pierre Turgeon, Blues 404 888 0.45
Dave Andreychuk, Bruins 541 1,223 0.44
Mark Messier, Canucks 614 1,426 0.43
Rick Tocchet, Coyotes 412 1,003 0.41
Ron Francis, Hurricanes 452 1,340 0.34
Doug Gilmour, Blackhawks 400 1,208 0.33