Chris Chelios and Scott Niedermayer were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesday, and Chelios called Niedermayer intimidating.
Think about that for a second.
On a day when Fred Shero (the coach behind the Broad Street Bullies), Brendan Shanahan (a rough-and-tumble player whose current job is to define the limits of intimidation) and Chelios (arguably the most physically intimidating defenseman of all time) joined women’s hockey pioneer Geraldine Heaney on the way to enshrinement in Toronto, is it possible that the slick-skating Niedermayer was the most intimidating of them all?
“He made it look so easy,” Chelios said of Niedermayer. “He was a guy with a ton of skill but also real competitive. He’d stand up to anybody. Watching him and [Scott] Stevens together, two different types of players but both equally effective, he was just as intimidating. You didn’t know. You had to be ready at any time.”
The late author David Foster Wallace once wrote an appreciation of tennis player Roger Federer in which he coined the term “Federer Moments,” defining them as “times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”
You could apply the concept to many Niedermayer Moments. The cross-rink passes, the sublime wrist shot, the subversive way he made everyone in the building think he was going right when in fact he was going left, the way he skated so fluidly that merely watching the man carve an improvised path around the rink — which I did, for long stretches of time while he was preparing to unretire in 2008 — constituted entertainment.
This was all at the end of his career. The beginning of his career made it possible.
“For me, a young defenseman coming into the league when I did, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity from the coaches in New Jersey,” he said. “Then to play alongside veteran defensemen so early in my career, it was a great place for a young defenseman to try to figure the game out. Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver, Slava Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Tommy Albelin – to watch these guys really helped me become a pro.
“I’m probably on this call because of guys like that.”
Niedermayer was at his best when paired with a pair of physically intimidating defensemen, Stevens in New Jersey and Chris Pronger in Anaheim. With others, he often had less room to skate and was simply less fun to watch. But he was still effective. Niedermayer won four Stanley Cups — three as a Devil, one in Anaheim — and is the only player to have won a Memorial Cup, World Cup, Olympic gold medal and Stanley Cup championship. It’s an intimidating resumé.
Off the ice, Niedermayer was the opposite. He was wiry strong, not thick like Chelios. His short haircut and spectacles gave him the look of a college professor, not a professional athlete, especially when the gray crept into his hair during his later years in Anaheim.
Chelios, who retired with the Atlanta Thrashers a mere three years ago, remarked that “I always said I’d go right until the tank was empty and I think I did.” At 48 years old with the physical conditioning of a man half his age, Chelios was still physically intimidating.
Niedermayer retired at 37, still the Ducks’ best defenseman and still earning his $6 million contract. But the Niedermayer Moments were fewer and farther between; the intimidation factor was gone.
The native of Cranbrook, B.C., was vacationing with his wife on Vancouver Island when he received the Hall call from Toronto this week. “People say you should be waiting for the call,” he said. He was not.
Always making it look easy.1
1. On a personal note, Niedermayer holds a unique place in my career. He was the first Hall of Fame player I covered as a beat writer. Maybe that will be important when I get a Hall of Fame ballot someday, when I’m asked to distinguish between good and great and immortal, and I get to recall all the things that went into making Scott Niedermayer an immortal hockey player.