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Riding High
Kostya Kennedy
November 08, 1999
Driven by his mother's indomitable spirit, veteran Stars center Joe Nieuwendyk is still at the top of his game
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November 08, 1999

Riding High

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

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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





Brett Hull, Stars




Luc Robitaille, Kings




Joe Nieuwendyk, Stars




Steve Yzerman, Red Wings




Pierre Turgeon, Blues




Dave Andreychuk, Bruins




Mark Messier, Canucks




Rick Tocchet, Coyotes




Ron Francis, Hurricanes




Doug Gilmour, Blackhawks




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."

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—Puck, 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-Aimé, 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."

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