Of course, it’s much more than that for a B.C. boy who’s been asked to play a leading role in the most anticipated event of the 2010 Olympics in his home province. But at the very crux of it, Scott Niedermayer’s visit to Vancouver for the men’s Olympic hockey tournament is all about taking care of business. And anyone who knows anything about the 36-year-old captain of Team Canada is well aware that Niedermayer is in the business of winning international hockey tournaments. In fact, no one in the history of the sport has won on more—or bigger—stages than the quiet, unassuming superstar defenceman from Cranbrook.
From the Memorial Cup (1992) to four Stanley Cups (1995, 2000, 2003, and 2007) to international wins at the World Junior Championship (1991), World Championship (2004), World Cup (2004), and the Olympics (2002), Niedermayer is the only man on the planet to have won them all. And now, in the twilight of his legendary career—in what will almost surely be his last tournament in international hockey—Niedermayer returns home to lead his country into battle in what many hockey observers believe has the potential to be the greatest international tournament ever played.
However, despite his low-key approach, this is anything but just another road trip for Niedermayer. Although he has plied his trade professionally for 19 years in out-of-the-way hockey homes—first in New Jersey and for the past five seasons in Anaheim—the smooth-skating defenceman is well aware of what’s ahead of him and his 22 Team Canada teammates trying to strike gold as the home team in the showcase event of the games. And the significance of being a British Columbian and getting the chance to be the leader of this high-profile group isn’t lost on Niedermayer.
“Obviously, you look at it and you think, ”˜Yeah, that would be a pretty unique experience, being on such a big stage like the Olympics,’ something that everybody knows about and something everybody watches growing up as a kid,” Niedermayer tells the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview from Nashville, where his Anaheim Ducks were taking on the Predators in National Hockey League action. “So to be part of that so close to home is going to be pretty unique. Maybe the full extent of it won’t be realized until you’re in it or you’ve gone through it looking back at it. It’s going to be a lot of fun. You keep in mind everything that it’s all about: close to home, playing for Team Canada in hockey, which is always an honour. And it’s a thrill being part of the Olympic Games—which for any athlete is a great accomplishment, to be an Olympian—so you just add all that up together and it’s going to be a special time.”
Although regularly referred to as a Cranbrook native, Niedermayer was actually born in Edmonton and spent the first three years of his life as the son of the only doctor in the remote northern mining outpost of Cassiar, B.C., which was located not far from the Yukon border but no longer exists. It wasn’t until Niedermayer was a toddler that his family made the move to the Kootenays and his journey to hockey stardom began.
A father of four boys himself now, ranging in age from one to 10, Niedermayer, one of 35 athletes with ties to British Columbia on the 206-member 2010 Canadian Olympic team, remains proud of his Canadian roots and his strong ties to one of the prettiest parts of the province. And it’s important to him that his sons understand the bond he has with B.C.
“We get back in the summers,” he says. “My wife, Lisa, is from Cranbrook as well, so we get back for a few months every summer. It’s not as much as we used to, because the kids are in school and they only get a few months off to get away. But we head back there and enjoy everything that B.C. has to offer, getting out on the lakes and doing some fishing and hiking. They [the boys] know what it’s all about, and they enjoy it when we’re back there.”
But this is where Niedermayer’s role as Captain Canada comes back to being a business trip. Knowing he’ll have plenty of time for leisure activities during the off-season, Niedermayer is coming back to the province he calls home this time with one thing on his mind. That is being part of a Canadian team that lives up to the weighty expectations of a nation and finds a way to win.
Somewhat surprisingly, these will be just Niedermayer’s second Olympic Games. Despite representing the country in the 1996 World Cup, he was not selected to be part of Canada’s team at the 1998 Nagano Games. And four years ago, he was named to Team Canada for the Turin Olympics but required knee surgery and was unable to compete.
That leaves the 2002 Games as Niedermayer’s only Olympics and he has nothing but good memories of the hockey tournament that Canada won by beating the U.S. in the gold-medal game. But true to his laid-back nature and his commitment to excellence, hockey memories are all he has from his time in Salt Lake City. And if all goes according to plan, that’s all he’ll take away from these Vancouver games, too.
“I didn’t get to any other events in Salt Lake. I’m the type of guy who likes to focus on what I’m doing,” Niedermayer explains. “We weren’t there for the opening ceremonies, and we didn’t end up going to the closing ceremonies, either, so we definitely didn’t experience the whole thing. And in Vancouver, the full focus when we get there will be on going out and performing as well as we can as a team. I haven’t seen the full schedule as far as our practices go, but I’m one of the older guys, so I’ll probably take as much chance as I can to rest. Maybe some of the younger guys might have a bit of energy to do a little more, but I don’t expect to see a whole lot other than the rink.”
Those “younger guys”, as the veteran puts it, represent the future of the game in this country. And the likes of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Penticton’s Duncan Keith, Tsawwassen’s Brent Seabrook, and Shea Weber of Sicamous—many of whom Niedermayer met for the first time at last summer’s Hockey Canada orientation camp in Calgary—would do well to heed every word of advice their captain has to offer during their time together here. This is a player who has been measured at the highest level of competition and has always found a way to come out on top.
And all that winning is what matters most in the eyes of those who compete against Niedermayer in the NHL but are glad to be on his side in competitions like the one about to start.
“He competes hard, but he’s got a confidence under pressure and he never seems to give in,” Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla tells the Straight during a recent visit to GM Place. “He’s won everything, and that says a lot. He’s won at every single level he’s ever been at, and that’s what you dream to do as a player. Guys try to play hard on him and he doesn’t back down and he doesn’t get rattled, either. I think those are definitely nice attributes to have as captain of Team Canada, and we’re going to be in close games and there’s going to be a lot of pressure, and you look over at him and he looks like he doesn’t feel any.”
And it’s those attributes that made Niedermayer an easy selection as captain. There was talk in hockey circles that perhaps the time had come to let a young guy like Crosby lead the way. But on the world stage, Sid the Kid is just that—a 22-year-old who’s already a phenom but still a relative rookie when compared to the experience that Niedermayer possesses and can bring to the role. A veteran of more than 1,200 regular-season NHL games and 200 more when the heat is on in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Niedermayer admits he had a sense that he might be asked to lead the group in Vancouver.
“In the summer, of course, up in Canada everything got talked about, so there was ”˜What about this?’ and ”˜What about that?’ and there was talk about who would be captain, and my name had been mentioned at different times,” he recalls of being told of the honour moments before Team Canada’s roster was unveiled on December 30. “I was excited about it, and I guess I’ve been around a while. You look at how young this team is and the experiences I’ve had as a player, the management and coaching staff felt that would be a plus for the team. It is an honour, but at the same time, whether I was asked or not, I would have gone there with the same goals and same approach either way. So I don’t know if it’s going to change a whole lot just because I’m captain. I’m going there as a guy who’s been through things; I’ll try to give some leadership at certain times. Whether there’s a C on my jersey, it doesn’t make a difference to me, and I don’t think it will make a difference to a lot of the players that will be there. The guys who have been through this type of thing before will step up at different times and provide leadership for the team.”
A significant part of Niedermayer’s leadership role will likely include calming the nerves of a Canadian team that could get weighed down by the expectations of a nation. He’s excited—or as excited as he ever lets on—about having home-ice advantage in a short tournament like this one. But the flip side of that coin is that Niedermayer knows nothing but gold will be good enough in a hockey-lovin’ country like Canada.
“I’m sure we’re all going to remember it forever,” he says of having the chance to be the home country in the Olympics. “The fans are going to be into it; they’re going to be excited and that’s going to make it special for everybody involved, including the players. We’re looking forward to it. They love their hockey there [Vancouver] and we love to play, and we’re looking forward to the challenge. There’s a bunch of great teams, and it’s going to make for a great tournament and we’re looking forward to doing what we can.”
With just one practice before their tournament opener, Team Canada won’t have much time together to make sure it’s ready for what lies ahead. In that regard, the captain will have his work cut out for him and will need his businesslike approach to help the group find its focus.
As far as Niedermayer is concerned, the first meeting of his business trip is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on February 16. And if all goes according to plan, he’ll have an appointment at 12:15 p.m. on February 28, too. The Russians, the Americans, the Swedes, the Finns, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Germans, the Swiss, the Belarusians, the Latvians, and the Norwegians all hope to be there too. They’ve all got skill and speed and plenty of reasons to believe.
But only Canada has Niedermayer, who stands a chance to be a hero in his home province. And after all the winning he’s done over the years, it would only seem fitting that he’d get the chance to cap his career with a golden moment in beautiful British Columbia.