Starting a Nieu chapter

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:16 AM ET

It was almost 20 years ago a hotshot Cornell kid named Joe Nieuwendyk showed up in Calgary to see if he could play in the bigs.

For parts of nine seasons he brought a deadly wrist shot, a deft scoring touch, leadership, class and poise to the rink every night as one of the NHL's most consistent performers.

Back-to-back 51-goal seasons to open his career earned him a Calder Trophy, trumped only by a Stanley Cup he helped haul to Calgary in just his second full season.

However, in the end, as time blurs all, he'll be remembered in these parts for bringing one of the greatest gifts Flames fans have ever received: Jarome Iginla.

Digging in his heels as part of a bitter contract dispute with GM Al Coates and the small-market Flames who could no longer afford luxuries like him, his five-year reign as captain came to an end when he chose to sit out the fall of 1995, awaiting a trade. Six days before Christmas he got word he was off to Dallas for Corey Millen and a junior star that prompted headlines: Jarome Who?

Yesterday, after years of fighting knee and chronic back problems, Nieuwendyk retired at age 40, while Iginla is proving to be the gift that keeps on giving.

"Right now it's a great deal for the organization but back then? Maybe not so much," laughed longtime teammate Mike Vernon, who was surprised to hear an emotional Nieuwendyk told teammates before practice yesterday he would heed doctors' advice to retire.

"I think Al Coates made a helluva decision. They've got a franchise player that they built the organization around."

Ironically, Iginla now wears the 'C' and is four points away from eclipsing Nieuwendyk as the third-leading scorer as a Flame. And the Stars got a stud who won the Conn Smythe trophy after leading them to the Cup three years later. From there he moved on to Jersey where he won another Cup, signed with the Leafs and finished in Florida where injuries mounted the last season and a half.

A testament to just how beloved he was here is the fact after spurning the Flames for more money, he was never booed upon his return.

"Why do you think he sat out?" asked Vernon. "(Al) MacInnis left, (Gary) Suter left, I left, (Rob) Ramage left, (Joe) Mullen left, (Joel) Otto left, Hakan Loob ... what do you do? The organization had to get younger and rebuild and he wanted to win championships and further his career."

Although there was frustration at the time, few could blame him for jumping from a sinking ship that wouldn't pay him market value.

"I have reached the stage where structurally my back isn't going to get any better," the eight-time 30-goal scorer told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel after visiting a back specialist. "It's not the way I intended it but I have to be realistic as well."

A lacrosse star growing up in Whitby, Ont., he used his 6-ft. 2-in., 205-lb. frame to gain position and score 564 goals. He also had 562 assists in 1,257 games.

Let the debate begin over whether his No. 25 should hit the 'Dome rafters. If so, it should go right next to Iginla's No. 12.


Photos