For more than 40 minutes, Joe Nieuwendyk’s teammates sat crammed in a small meeting room enduring the most painful team meeting of a pretty challenging season.
Nieuwendyk, considered the heart and soul of the Panthers, was there to say goodbye. After 20 seasons in the NHL, Nieuwendyk announced his retirement.
“It’s ideally not the way I wanted it to happen,” he would say later. “It’s kind of being decided for me. I still love the game, love being part of the team. But when the body doesn’t do what the mind wants it to, it becomes difficult to play this game at a high level.”
Nieuwendyk’s aching back is the culprit. A three-time Stanley Cup champion, Nieuwendyk was told by a doctor he should cease playing, that his back injury not only wasn’t going to get any better, but it could get much worse.
News like that was enough to scare Nieuwendyk into retirement.
“I’ve gone against doctors’ decisions in the past, came back and played and felt good about the way I played,” said Nieuwendyk, who met with specialists at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio last Friday.
“But I think I’ve reached the stage that structurally my back isn’t going to get any better. So I’ve decided I’m going to adhere to the advice this time… . It’s not the way I intended it, but I have to be realistic as well. I’ve had a lot of fun, but I have other people I think about that are more important.”
HALL OF FAME
His final moment in an NHL uniform came on Nov. 28 in Montreal. Nieuwendyk took what would be the final shot of a shootout loss, getting blocked by Canadiens’ goalie Cristobal Huet. He ends with 564 goals to put him 19th all-time making him a prime candidate for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2010.
“You don’t replace a guy like him,” Florida captain Olli Jokinen said. “He probably wasn’t 100 percent the two years he was here, but you never heard him complain about anything. He didn’t make a big deal about it. Guys knew he had back problems. You ask him how you’re doing? He said good. He never said anything that would be a distraction to the team. He never wanted to be that kind of a hero.”
Nieuwendyk played 15 games this season, scoring five goals and assisting on three others. He missed nine games because of his sore back.
According to Nieuwendyk, he has pronounced disc degenerations at L5-S1 in his spine where “there is bone bruising going on because of that,” he said.
“He can’t do it anymore because of his health,” said coach and general manager Jacques Martin. “He has three young children and a wife at home. You have to respect that. But in the time he was here, he really helped our organization. He helped me as a coach and he helped a lot of the players, and has been really positive.”
Martin and the Panthers praised Nieuwendyk for his commitment to the team – no matter where that team was located. Nieuwendyk played for five different organizations, and won the Cup in Calgary, Dallas and New Jersey.
Nieuwendyk played the past few seasons in pain, and briefly contemplated retirement after last season in which he missed a good portion because of back spasms. But, he finished strong and played in 65 games and recorded 56 points.
“He’s been awesome, he doesn’t even have to do much to have an influence,” said center Stephen Weiss. “It’s too bad to see. He’s a guy that everyone looks to on this team, and you can tell why he won during his career. What he did on the ice goes without saying, but I’ll remember him doing the little things off the ice. He’s such a good person. That’s what I’ll miss about him.”
`A GREAT FRIEND’
Gary Roberts grew up with Nieuwendyk in Ontario, Canada, the two becoming teammates for the first time when they were 5. Roberts, like Martin, knew of Nieuwendyk’s announcement beforehand, although it didn’t make things easier. Roberts came to Florida with Nieuwendyk moments after the free agency period opened on Aug. 1, 2005.
“We started together,” Roberts said then, “and we need to end together.”
Roberts says it’s a shame things didn’t work out the way either hoped they would.
“I’ve seen it over the last little while and knew it was becoming tougher and tougher for him to be able to play,” Roberts said. “But to see what Joe has been going through, and try and travel and play, has been tough. It was a very emotional day for him and for us… . We have a long history together and our families are very close. He’s a great friend and I feel very bad for him today.”
Nieuwendyk doesn’t know what his future will hold, although he has no plans to leave South Florida.
“We love it here,” he said of wife Tina and their three young children. “We have no interest in leaving.”
From Mercury News