I had a nice exchange with a reader a couple weeks ago after he called me out for writing that Joe Nieuwendyk was a “shoo-in” for first ballot Hall of Fame induction this year.
The article appeared in our June 7 issue and set the table for the Hall’s induction announcement, which takes place June 22 in Toronto. In it, I mentioned Nieuwendyk is the only lock in a field that includes first-time eligible players Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Peter Bondra, and 2009 holdovers Alex Mogilny and Dave Andreychuk.
The reader responded, saying he nearly fell off his chair after reading what he thought was an overly complimentary assessment of Nieuwendyk’s career. He acknowledged Nieuwendyk was a fine player, but didn’t do anything special enough to be considered a shoo-in.
“I cannot pinpoint a season where he was deemed to ever be ‘great’” the reader wrote.
True, Nieuwendyk was never great in the sense he could dominate the game with exceptional puck control or over-the-top offense. But Nieuwendyk did touch the threshold of greatness on a variety of levels – at least in my opinion.
Nieuwendyk was a great rookie scorer as a 20-year-old with the Calgary Flames in 1987-88, finishing with 51 goals and 92 points in 75 games and winning the Calder Trophy. He was fifth in NHL goal-scoring that season.
I also thought Nieuwendyk was great the following year scoring 61 combined regular season and playoff goals and acting as a key contributor in Calgary’s 1989 Stanley Cup victory.
Nieuwendyk had six more seasons in Calgary, scoring 45 goals on two occasions and his game evolved to the point where he became an elite two-way center. When the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, Nieuwendyk had a then-record six game-winning goals and won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. By the time he won a Cup with New Jersey in 2003, Nieuwendyk was a shutdown specialist. For most of his 19 seasons in the NHL, he was the game’s top drawmaster, routinely finishing in the top three in faceoff percentage.
Nieuwendyk also represented Canada at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics and finished his career ranked 20th in goal-scoring with 564.
Perhaps more than his other attributes, Nieuwendyk was a premier leader and player of character. He was a model citizen during his career and has carried that forth in his stewardship of the Dallas Stars as GM. And that is what will put him over the top in the eyes of the Hall’s selection committee.
To gain Hall of Fame approval, a player must have the support of at least 14 of the 18 members on the committee. Sure, there’s a chance five or more members will disagree with me and keep Nieuwendyk in the ‘very good’ category rather than ‘great.’
But the committee as a whole has shown a propensity for placing great stock in a player’s character in addition to his on-ice attributes. That’s one reason why I believe Lindros, another first-time eligible player, won’t gain acceptance this year.
Lindros was arguably the best player in the game during his first four seasons and that alone will eventually get the star-crossed superstar in the Hall of Fame. But Lindros was also a constant headache in more ways than one and that hangover will be enough to see him rebuffed this year.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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