Hey Joe, thanks for choosing us

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:54 PM ET


 Anyone could have had Joe Nieuwendyk in the summer.

 All they had to do was make an offer.

 But July passed and August passed and none of the preliminary phone calls of interest turned out to be anything more than words. And all of a sudden here was a man with three Stanley Cup rings, a questionable back but without a contract or a hockey home.

 "I won't lie to you, I was getting nervous," Nieuwendyk said on the eve of the Maple Leafs-Philadelphia Flyers playoff series. "The whole summer went by and here I was, 37 years old, and I didn't want to sit out training camp and wait like so many other players did.

 "I didn't think that was the right thing for me. I didn't know what was going on and I didn't like the feeling. There wasn't really anything happening until the second day before training camp. The first concrete offer I received was from Toronto and I jumped at it."

 He jumped at it, and the Leafs couldn't be happier.

 "Nobody was getting much action in the free-agent market," Rick Curran, Nieuwendyk's agent, said. "For some reason, no one was prepared to put a contract offer on the table. Some clubs expressed interest, but there was so much uncertainty."

 $2M SALARY

 Nieuwendyk didn't sign with the Leafs for the money. He signed, underpriced at $2 million US for the season, because the offer was there, because he wanted another shot at the Cup, because he wanted to play in this kind of hockey environment.

 "There's no better time to be a Leaf than this," Curran said.

 "This is what it's all about for me," said Nieuwendyk, who scored five of the Leafs' 14 first-round goals against the Ottawa Senators. "It wasn't about coming home or playing with Gary (Roberts). It was about winning a Cup.

 "That goal hasn't changed, taking another Stanley Cup run. Now we're one of eight teams. I don't see any reason why we can't be that team at the end. That was the plan, right from the beginning."

 A plan that continues tonight in Round 2, with Nieuwendyk opposing his old coach, Ken Hitchcock, whom he won with in Dallas.

 The goalie was Ed Belfour. The Conn Smythe winner that year was Nieuwendyk. There is little the coach doesn't know about the player and little the player doesn't know about the coach.

 "Hitchcock hockey is pretty much the same as it has always been," Nieuwendyk said. "I was with him long enough to know some of the things he's preaching. I know what he's saying right now. Believe me, he'll have that team ready.

 "His philosophy is to out-patient the other team, to stick with it longer than the other team and eventually the other team will crack."

 Which is what the Leafs did to the Senators in Round 1. They didn't push the play, they pounced on mistakes.

 Now it's two teams of different size and shape and speed and age and two coaches who know each other well playing much the same game.

 A best-of-seven battle of wills. Not the same two teams that went seven games a year ago. The Leafs obviously have Nieuwendyk in their lineup, but also have seven other players who weren't around or didn't contribute last year -- Brian Leetch, Ken Klee, Bryan Marchment, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Ron Francis, Matt Stajan.

 The Flyers have almost as many changes and improvements, with veterans Alexei Zhamnov, Danny Markov and Vladimir Malakhov among their seven roster changes. The late-season MVPs of both teams were general managers John Ferguson Jr. and Bobby Clarke.

 After signing his own contract, Ferguson's next deal was to sign Nieuwendyk.

 "I think the chances are pretty good I would have signed somewhere else had there been an offer," said Nieuwendyk, who then echoed the words of most Leafs fans.

 "I'm just glad it turned out this way."


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