ANAHEIM, Calif. - In a mostly deserted rink, a solitary figure zipped around the ice.
Scott Niedermayer was back at work. After the Anaheim Ducks won their first Stanley Cup last summer, Niedermayer was almost completely convinced he had played his final NHL game.
Gradually, as he watched the Ducks play, he changed his mind.
"It's one thing to make the decision in the summer, but then to be here opening night when the banner went up, we got our Stanley Cup rings, all pretty special times. The best of times of being a professional athlete," the 34-year-old Niedermayer, more grey than black in his stubble, said Thursday after skating seriously for the first time since June.
"You always want to try to get back to do the same thing, and I guess maybe early on, I just didn't have that in me, to dig down and do it again. As time progressed, I found it again."
And he missed the camaraderie.
"That was a real big thing. And maybe I didn't think that I would as much as I did, just the special friendships and experiences that you have as a team," he said. "That's pretty simple stuff, but it's fun."
He wasn't sure when he would play his first game, but general manager Brian Burke thinks he can be ready in a week to 10 days.
Niedermayer skated laps alone on Thursday after his teammates had left on a three-game road trip.
There wouldn't seem to be much left for Niedermayer to accomplish. He has hoisted the Stanley Cup four times, three with the New Jersey Devils before joining the Ducks - and brother Rob Niedermayer - in 2005. He has won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenceman, and earned his first Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP this past season.
He's set a new goal.
"I was fortunate early in my NHL career to win a Stanley Cup championship and learn that the biggest challenge of all was to try to do it again," he said. "That never goes away.
"I put a lot into last season and trying to win a championship with a new group of guys in a new situation. It was a very special time, and I'd like to try to do that again. You have to find a way to start again and be better than the year before."
No team has won the Cup in consecutive years since Detroit did it in 1997 and '98, and champions in recent years have mostly struggled the following season.
Niedermayer had two years and US$13.5 million remaining on his contract. According to NHL rules, the Ducks suspended him without pay when he did not report to training camp. So far, he has lost about $2.3 million in salary.
Having made the decision to come back this season, he said he doesn't know about playing another year. He did say that, having been through the decision-making process this time, he certainly won't drag out a decision about whether to play in 2008-2009.
The Ducks have to unload some salary before Niedermayer can play, and general manager Brian Burke said he foresees no difficulty in making a deal with another team to accomplish that.
The Ducks got off to a slow start in defence of their Cup crown and are third in the Pacific Division with a 13-12-4 record. After it was announced Wednesday that Niedermayer was joining the team, Anaheim looked inspired in a 4-1 win over Buffalo.
Burke said he liked the performance, which looked "like the Ducks of old."
Niedermayer cautioned, however, that one player can't make a huge impact on a team, despite what fans might expect.
"I would disagree with the fact that any player, except maybe (Wayne) Gretzky at his best, would come back and be able to totally turn anything around," he said. "It's a team game."
Teammate Andy McDonald, on the other hand, believes having him in the lineup will be a big plus.
"We're going to become that much better of a team. As a forward, it's great to be out there with him because he moves the puck really well. And it makes things a lot easier when you can get that pass from the defenceman under pressure," McDonald said.
Now that he's back, the Ducks are missing just one star - Teemu Selanne. The 37-year-old Selanne, who led Anaheim with 48 goals and 94 points last season and got his first Stanley Cup ring, also has been given time to decide whether he'll retire. Unlike Niedermayer, he's a free agent, but said if he does play again, it will be for the Ducks.
Niedermayer said he heard from Selanne recently, but only family news.
"I got a text message just saying that they had a baby girl, and he's excited about that. But I haven't spoken to him for about a month or so," he said.
Burke, who obviously would like Selanne to get out of the house and back on the ice at some point, joked, "I hope that baby girl cries a lot."