L ate last February, after a disappointing road game in Detroit, Scott Niedermayer strode through the basement of Joe Louis Arena to find a hockey legend waiting for him at the door of the Anaheim Ducks team bus. Steve Yzerman is a Hall of Fame centre and former captain of the Red Wings. But on this night he was speaking in his capacity as executive director of the Canadian men’s national team, and his message was blunt: he saw Niedermayer as a key leader—a potential captain, even—of the team that would carry Canada’s gold medal hopes at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
It was all but a guarantee of a spot on the team. This some three months before an evaluation camp in Vancouver where, officially, coaches and managers would start assessing the talent. But where Niedermayer was concerned, Yzerman wasn’t about to stand on process. Twice in the previous two seasons, he knew, the stylish defenceman had contemplated hanging up his skates altogether; in 2007, Niedermayer had spent a half-season considering his future, before returning to the Ducks in the New Year and resuming his usual stellar play.
Yzerman also understood the unique value of Niedermayer’s personality to a team that would soon be engulfed by a nationwide lust for Olympic gold. There is a serenity, an almost transcendent calm, about the 36-year-old from Cranbrook, B.C., that seems to grow in proportion to the pressure on him and his teammates. “I told Scott I thought the Olympic team was going to have a whole new group of young defencemen,” says Yzerman, “and that I’d be looking for some veteran leaders to settle this team down. He’s very calm in big situations.”
Special treatment? Maybe. But Niedermayer has never been subject to the laws and forces governing lesser players. Blessed with a skating stride that allows him to cross the ice with inhuman efficiency, he is the greatest puck-moving blueliner since Bobby Orr, and a player whom victory has followed from city to city, tournament to tournament, from the time he picked up a stick. Of the many statistics cited to quantify his on-ice value (a half-dozen all-star selections; three nominations for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman), the most telling may be the six different championships Niedermayer’s teams have won at various levels of the game: the Memorial Cup (junior); the world junior championship; the world championship; the World Cup of Hockey; the Olympic gold medal; and the Stanley Cup. No other player in the history of the game can make the same claim.
Small wonder, then, that fans and media assumed he would play at the 2010 Olympics from the time Vancouver won the right to host them. What B.C. boy wouldn’t leap at the chance? All those suppositions fell into doubt, however, when Niedermayer began questioning his future in the summer of 2007—despite scoring a career-high 69 points the previous season. He spoke of a concern at missing out on other things in life, from his four sons to the environmental causes to which he’s lent his name in recent years. But he now acknowledges that 2010 and Vancouver was always at the back of his mind. “Obviously, you look at it and say, hmm, Olympics in your home province. That’s a pretty neat thing,” he told Maclean’s in a recent interview. “Ultimately, it came down to me making a personal decision, and I tried to base it solely on whether I was ready to make the commitment of another full season of the NHL.”
The logic here was simple: Niedermayer could hardly expect a berth on the team if he weren’t playing top-flight hockey at the time. And the long grind of an NHL season is not something to take lightly. “The Olympics are a two-week event, not the 10- or 12-month commitment it is to play in the NHL.” Indeed, with the Games less than a month away, Niedermayer remained preoccupied by the Ducks’ sub-par performance through the first half of the season. “At this point in my career, I’m judging my personal play more on how the team does. I guess you’d have to say we’re not doing as well as we should be.”
Still, he’s well aware of the national pride invested in the Olympic team, and has given thought to the sort of leadership required for a team that will have just six returning players from the previous Olympic squad (Niedermayer stayed home from the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, to have arthroscopic knee surgery). Suffice to say, fans should not expect a leader cut from the same cloth as warrior-captains like Bobby Clarke. “At this tournament, we’ll find ourselves in a number of different places faced with different challenges,” he muses. “What will we do? How will we act? What type of attitude should we take? If I can show the right way to respond, hopefully that’ll help.”
To provide that example, Niedermayer will draw on his long history of delivering victory in high-pressure games, not least the 2002 gold medal in Salt Lake City. That 5-2 win over the U.S. is now as deeply embedded in Canadian sporting lore as the good-luck loonie Canada’s icemakers buried at centre ice. But the lopsided score makes it easy to forget how hard-fought the game was, he notes, and how wrenching the tournament. “It never goes exactly as you picture it. There are always ups and downs, a few challenges that come around that you didn’t account for.”
That’s where Niedermayer’s mystical calm comes in, say former teammates, a quality that from the start of his career with the New Jersey Devils allowed him to fly above the fray of off-ice clamour and on-ice mayhem. “I was a 10-year veteran when he arrived,” says Ken Daneyko, who played 11 seasons with Niedermayer with the Devils, and roomed with him on the road. “But I couldn’t help but look up to him, because he had this maturity both on and off the ice that was way beyond his years.” Daneyko, now retired, believes that detachment—an ability to subtract emotion from decisions both on and off the ice—holds the key to Niedermayer’s leadership style. “Some people think a leader is a rah-rah guy, but really, a leader is someone who carries himself well.”
No one should mistake it for a lack of will, Daneyko hastens to add: “When the game starts, there’s no one more intense.” And the plain truth is that he shouldn’t have to do much cheerleading on a team that boasts nine NHL captains. But when the heat is truly on next month—if the team falls behind by a goal, if it loses a game and a nation prepares to rend its red-and-white garments—that’s when they’ll turn to Scott Niedermayer. If Yzerman has guessed correctly, we will all be glad he made that trip to the basement of Joe Louis Arena.