A three-time winner of the Stanley Cup and a gold-medal winner with Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics, Joe Nieuwendyk ’88 is among the greatest athletes ever to graduate from Cornell. The 20-year NHL veteran, who retired in December, finished his career ranked 19th all-time in goals (564). During his career, he played for the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers. A member of the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame, Nieuwendyk is ranked sixth all-time in goals and 11th in points for Cornell. While playing for the Red, he was a teammate of current head coach Mike Schafer ’86. Nieuwendyk, who will have his number 25 jersey retired next fall, was back at Cornell for the games over the weekend, and was honored in a small ceremony before Saturday night’s contest with St. Lawrence. After being met with a standing ovation, Nieuwendyk complimented the Lynah Faithful and called Lynah “the best place [he] has ever played.”
After the game, Nieuwendyk fielded a few questions from the local media, including the Sun:
How is retirement treating you?
I’ve got no complaints right now. It has been nice. It allows me to do stuff like this.
How does it feel to be back here at Cornell and in front of the fans?How do all the venues you played in compare to Lynah Rink?
I made the point while I was speaking earlier that I have played in rinks all over North America, and that the old Chicago Stadium had a good atmosphere for an NHL rink, but I will tell you this has a really unique feel with the townspeople and the students. It’s a really intimidating rink for opposing players to come into, and it’s the best rink I have played in for its atmosphere.
What was coach Schafer like as a player and as a teammate?
Very much like he is as a coach. He was very fiery and he was one of the best open-ice hitters. You don’t see much of that anymore, but he used to line guys up coming across the middle and make them pay. He was a tough little defenseman back there. People were always aware when he was on the ice. He has that mentality and I think he coaches that way too.
Any defining moments from your Cornell hockey career?
I have had so many great memories. It is funny, as I’ve gone through my professional years, when I get back with some of the guys I played with here, we will talk about the old times like it was yesterday. My sophomore year, when we went on and played at Denver University, it was a great thrill for us. The ECAC championships at the Boston Garden was a thrill too, but just playing in front of these home fans was always a treat for all of us.
What do you think of this year’s version of the Red?
I think there is some work to be done. I think that we ran into a team that caused some problems for Cornell. St. Lawrence has a lot of speed and I though they worked hard and obviously got a tongue-lashing from their coach after Friday’s performance. I don’t think we were quite ready for the challenge. But this team has a lot of character and I know the coaching staff will be solving some problems this week. Even though it has been a year with a bit of turmoil for them, they are tied for fourth, so things aren’t that bad. Maybe it is one of those years where they have to be on a roll at the right time and get ready for the tournament.
What are your plans for the future? Are you thinking of coaching or scouting?
I haven’t fully decided. I’m sure I will stay in hockey. I have some opportunities that I’m looking at, but I’m just trying to make the right decision for myself, and more importantly for my family. I have three kids that are young, and we just want to make sure that we do the right thing for them. I don’t think that at this point I want to coach. I love being around the players and I love working with young guys. But, I’ve been away for a long time traveling, and my kids are two, four and five, so they kind of like having me home. If I get into coaching, I will be on the road just as much as I was as a player, and I’d kind of like to be around [my kids] for a little bit.
How did your experience in Ithaca and at Cornell help prepare you for the NHL?
It was a difficult transition. Back when I played here, in my junior year we didn’t make the playoffs. It was a long season, but I think we played 22 games that year and I found myself playing over 100 with Calgary, so that was a huge transition for me. I left [Cornell] right after my junior year and joined the Flames in New York City. I played the last nine regular season games and the playoffs, and that really helped me see what it was all about and get to know the players a little bit. The Flames wanted me to leave after my sophomore year but I knew I wasn’t ready and I was having too much fun here. It was a great time, but after my junior year, it felt like it was time to go.
What was it like being a hockey player at Cornell in the 1980s?
It was a great feeling and a great time. I think the players and everything are bigger and faster nowadays, but they have never lost the feel here at Lynah. And that’s important because I think that’s all we remember. I have nothing but great memories.
Were you surprised to hear that you’re the last Red player to score on a penalty shot? It was your last game. Do you remember it?
As a matter of fact, it was my final weekend and we needed to win both games that weekend and get some help in order to make the playoffs. We won the first night, but found out that we were out of the playoffs. I ended up getting a hat trick both nights, and I remember the penalty shot specifically. It’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been one since, but it’s funny that you don’t forget stuff like that.