The 40-year-old Florida Panthers centre told reporters Wednesday that his 20-year NHL career was finished after doctors informed him that his back pain would not improve.
Nieuwendyk missed 14 of the Panthers’ first 29 games this season because of the injury. He finished his career with 564 goals and 562 assists in 1,257 games.
“He was an all-around elite player,” said Montreal general manager Bob Gainey, Nieuwendyk’s coach and GM with the Dallas Stars. “He is the kind of player whose accomplishments merit consideration for the Hall of Fame.”
Nieuwendyk visited a back specialist last week and told Panthers coach Jacques Martin of his choice to retire on Monday. Players were told Wednesday morning before practice.
“Joey was a great player and as great a player as he was, he was an even better teammate,” said Brett Hull, a teammate with the Stars. “He got along with everybody, was very classy, unbelievably skilled and clutch.”
The Panthers (9-15-1-4) are second-to-last in the 15-team Eastern Conference with 23 points.
Nieuwendyk spent the first nine seasons of his NHL career with the Calgary Flames, then played parts of seven seasons with the Dallas Stars. He also played for the New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs before he and longtime friend Gary Roberts signed with the Panthers before the 2005-06 season.
Nieuwendyk won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP in 1999 while helping the Stars win the Stanley Cup. He also helped the Flames win the Cup-winning team in 1989 and got his third championship ring with the Devils in 2003.
“Joe was a great player and a class act and I really enjoyed being around him both on and off the ice,” said Mike Modano, another former Stars teammate. “He is a very close friend, and I’m sorry to see him hang up the skates. But I’ll know he’ll succeed in whatever he does following his career.”
Nieuwendyk was also a member of the 2002 Canadian Olympic team that ended a 50-year gold medal drought.
He finished his career ranked 19th on the NHL goal list and tied with Hall of Famer Mike Bossy for 48th place with 1,126 points.
“You don’t see a lot of players have the kind of career he did with very strong personal accomplishments on very strong teams,” Gainey said.