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.