Some might call him Crazy Joe.
But count Joe Nieuwendyk in the optimists' camp for an imminent settlement of the National Hockey League lockout.
The Maple Leafs' centre, one of several late-30 somethings whose careers are threatened by the four-month-old dispute, said yesterday that the chilly forecast for talks between players and owners is misleading.
"It's almost like everyone's talking about Vince Carter now and everything's so quiet in hockey," Nieuwendyk said. "Maybe behind the scenes, things are going on.
"I know the owners are talking like they're unified. But I'm not so sure. They have a gag order on all those guys and I'm sure if that wasn't on, there would be a few more things being said. I have to think with the proposals we've put forward, a number of teams could work with them. At the very least, it should have got (talks) going a little more."
STILL WANT TO PLAY
Nieuwendyk, teammate Gary Roberts and unemployed winger Steve Thomas were all part of an NHL Players Association charity drive yesterday at Vaughn Mills Mall.
Present and former players gave autographs in exchange for toys that will go the the CHUM/CITY Christmas Wish and Ronald McDonald House. No offence to invitees Mark Osborne, Peter Zezel and Adam Graves, but the two Leafs and Thomas aren't ready to be listed as ex-NHLers just yet.
"In the back of your mind, you worry that this is it," said Roberts, who will be 39 next year. "But I enjoy training and enjoy pick-up hockey. If there's no hockey, next summer I'll add skating to my program.
"Young or old, you take one or two years off, it'll take time to get back."
Thomas is on much more shaky ground -- 41 and without a contract -- though two teams were mildly interested when the lockout began.
"As much as I'd like to think I can still play at this level, who knows what will happen if another year (is lost)," Thomas said. "I'd like to play until I'm 90. But there will come a time when the end is going to come. That will be tough, but what can you do? There were players like me who had to retire at the end of 1994 because of that lockout."
He sees some hope for resolution early in the New Year, but not as much as Nieuwendyk.
"(Last week) was not a good sign," he said. "Back in '94, there was always light at the end of the tunnel. It's hard for me to understand how this could go on for another year. The (status) of the game would totally drop off. I'm hopeful in a year they can bring it back to where it has been, hopefully make it even better."