DALLAS – About 10 days after Texan Tom Hicks bought the Dallas Stars, he showed some hockey smarts by giving up prospects and a big contract to land Joe Nieuwendyk.
It was a great investment. The Stars won the Presidents’ Trophy in Nieuwendyk’s first full season, won the Stanley Cup the next year, then went right back to the finals. Nieuwendyk even won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP the year of Dallas’ title, the first in franchise history.
Then the Stars traded Nieuwendyk in 2002, and things haven’t been the same since. Coincidence or not, Dallas has won just three playoff series, missing the post-season altogether this year.
So when Hicks decided to shake up his front office – sending co-general managers Brett Hull and Les Jackson back to roles they’re more suited for – it was Nieuwendyk to the rescue again.
His hiring was announced Sunday and the first-time GM was introduced at a news conference Monday.
“He’s a winner,” Hicks said. “What he brought on the ice for this organization (in the late ’90s) was different than the other stars we had. He was really the glue. I think that leadership and that ability to build a consensus around him, those skills sets will be very transferable to being in management.”
Nieuwendyk has spent the last two years being groomed for this opportunity, working in an apprentice role under GMs in Toronto and Florida. He also was assistant GM for Team Canada, which won a silver medal at the world championships; in that job, he coincidentally worked with the guy who traded him from the Stars (Doug Armstrong) and his new head coach, Dave Tippett.
“Spending the last month or so with him, I believe he’s ready for this,” Tippett said. “He is very methodical, very thoughtful in his approach. He thinks things through before he reacts to them. He was a hard player to play against because he would outthink you. I would imagine it’s going to be the same as GM.”
Not as speedy as Mike Modano, not the flashy scorer Hull was, Nieuwendyk was a steady, calming presence with lots of skill and plenty of grit. He also understood the business side of the game, serving as his own agent at times.
The comparison made by both Nieuwendyk and Hicks was to Bob Gainey, a Hall of Fame player who was 39 when he became general manager of the Minnesota North Stars. He eventually built them into a Stanley Cup winner – in Dallas, after the franchise moved. Of course, that was the ’99 team and Nieuwendyk was one of his top acquisitions.
Looking over the current roster, Nieuwendyk believes the Stars aren’t as far away from being contenders as it looked last season, when they plummeted from Western Conference finalists to 12th place in the West.
Injuries and the Sean Avery mess were problems that couldn’t be overcome. In captain Brenden Morrow, Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro, the Stars have three quality forwards in their prime, plus a capable goalie in Marty Turco and whatever Modano has left at 39. Other building blocks are in place, too, including Tippett, whom Nieuwendyk is happy to keep.
“I think this team can turn it around quickly,” he said. “I’m coming into a real good situation.”
He also believes Morrow is the perfect anchor.
“Clearly, this is Brenden’s team,” Nieuwendyk said. “I have no problem with this team taking the identity of the passion he brings to the game every night.”
Morrow was in the room hearing his boss rave about him and later joked, “I’ll have to tip him.”
Truth is, their admiration is mutual. Morrow broke in during the ’99 season and Nieuwendyk was among the veterans who helped mould him. They’ve spoken a lot in recent days, “just catching up,” more as friends than boss and employee.
Suffice to say, Morrow believes the Stars have the right guy in charge.
“This,” Morrow said, “is just another step in getting that winning tradition back.”