NEWARK, N.J. — When Scott Niedermayer was drafted by the New Jersey Devils with their first-round pick and third overall in 1991, the Edmonton, Alberta native had no clue about the Garden State.
“I didn’t even know where New Jersey was,” Niedermayer said. “I had no idea what I was getting into. I actually had a green and red Devils’ jersey when I was a kid and I remember watching one playoff run (1987) where I really got caught up in the excitement. I also knew some of the players. But when I got drafted, I was totally young and green.
“It was a whole new world to me.”
On Friday, Niedermayer, a swift-skating defenseman who helped the Devils to three Stanley Cup titles in a star-studded career, returned to New Jersey to have his No. 27 retired prior to the team’s game vs. the Dallas Stars. He joins two other defensemen — Ken Daneyko (No. 3) and Scott Stevens (No. 4) — as the only players in the team’s 30-year history to hold such an honor.
“When I was first drafted and came to New Jersey, they were in my first dressing room,” Niedermayer said. “I got the chance to watch and learn from those veteran defensemen. I got to room with both of them at one point. I had very little pressure or expectations and because I played with those guys, it made it a lot easier. They were both great teammates and friends. I was never afraid to go onto the ice with them. It’s a great honor for me to join those guys, for sure.”
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello could have never predicted that Niedermayer would develop into a three-time All-Star and Norris Trophy recipient (2004) as the top defenseman in the NHL.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined the success Scottie had,” Lamoriello said. “You never know how things would work out. He absolutely exceeded our expectations. He’s a special player, but he’s just as good of a person as he was a player.”
Lamoriello said that it’s no coincidence that the first three Devils to have their uniform numbers retired were all defenseman. Not to mention, the obvious next one to go to the rafters, future Hall of Fame goalkeeper Martin Brodeur, were all on the defensive side.
“I never really thought of it, but we’ve become synonymous with our defense,” Lamoriello said. “That’s the way we think and that’s the way we are. It’s just the way it worked out.”
In 13 seasons with the Devils, Niedermayer collected 101 goals and 364 assists, posting career bests of 14 goals twice in 1998 and his final year in New Jersey (2004).
After that season, Niedermayer signed as a free agent with the Anaheim Ducks and played his final five years there, leading the Ducks to the 2007 Stanley Cup title, his fourth as a player. He won the Stanley Cup along with his brother, Rob. Niedermayer continues to do some part-time public relations and consulting with the club after he retired as a player in 2010.
But Niedermayer was happy to be back in New Jersey Friday, with his wife, Lisa, and their four sons.
“When I got the call from Lou that they were doing this, I was honored,” Niedermayer said. “It really meant a lot to me. The time I spent here was amazing. We were able to win championships. It brings back so many of the memories. It’s hitting home now. I’m seeing so many familiar faces. I’m sure the emotions are going to start to flow. It’s a great honor. Joining this organization was great. It was better than any of my wildest dreams.”
Niedermayer vividly recalls the first of the Devils’ Stanley Cup championships in 1995. In Game 2 of the final series vs. heavily favored Detroit, he scored a memorable goal in which he skated end to end, and fired a shot off the back boards, which caromed right back to his stick. He then deposited it past Red Wings goaltender Mike Vernon en route to a 4-2 win. The Devils, who trailed in that game, 2-1, at the time of the goal, won the series in a dominant four-game sweep.
“I was still young enough at the time that I really didn’t appreciate it,” Niedermayer said. “I was just out there, having a good time and we were fortunate to win a championship that early in my career. ”
“Everyone loves scoring a goal. Winning that first championship was amazing. We truly believed in ourselves. Skating always allowed me to have some success. It would sometimes get me into trouble, but it would also get me out of trouble. My skating was my strength and it helped me in all areas of the game. I took advantage of it when I could.”
In 2000, Niedermayer and the Devils defeated Dallas, the same team that is at The Rock for the ceremony, in six games to win the Cup. In 2003, the team’s last championship, he and New Jersey defeated Anaheim, the organization he’d eventually leave for, in seven games.
Niedermayer retired young. And at age 38, he does not regret walking away from the game last year.
“I open the gate for my kids to get on the ice and I pick up the pucks after practice,” Niedermayer said of his new career. “I’m helping my sons’ teams, coaching a little, and I enjoy that. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to retire was to be with my sons.
“I definitely miss the game, but I enjoy doing what I do now.”