SI Vault
Brian Cazeneuve
March 11, 2010
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March 11, 2010

Scarlet Leader


THE VOICE OF CONFIDENCE SOUNDED A CALL TO CALM. Even after a humiliating defeat, the worst punch-in-the-gut result that Canadian hockey had endured on its home ice since the Soviets bulldozed into the Montreal Forum in the opener of the 1972 Summit Series, the captain was there to assure doubters that this was no sinking ship. "We'll be fine," said Scott Niedermayer minutes after Team Canada's 5-3 preliminary-round loss to the United States sent shock waves across the nation. "Panic? Why should we panic? We have to win four games now instead of three. We can do that...we still believe in one another, and we know what we can do."

If there was any player on Canada's Olympic roster who knew the mind-set and perseverance needed to win a tournament, it was the 36-year-old Niedermayer, a habitual champion. With Team Canada he won gold at the world junior championship in 1991, the World Cup and the world championship in 2004, and the Olympic gold medal in '02. He won the Memorial Cup, junior hockey's pinnacle, with Kamloops, in '92; he won three Stanley Cups with New Jersey ('95, 2000 and '03) and a fourth Cup with Anaheim in '07. He stands alone as the only player ever to win all six of those championships.

That was why, when Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and coach Mike Babcock announced the 23-man Olympic roster on Dec. 30, they also named Niedermayer the captain on the same day. "Scott is our most decorated player," Yzerman says. "He's played in these events. He's well respected and a calming influence."

"He doesn't say much," said Babcock during the Games. "He just goes about his business and leads the way you want a guy to lead: by doing all the right things, not making mistakes, putting the team first."

The 2010 Olympics marked the seventh time Niedermayer represented the Maple Leaf in international play. When he missed the '06 Games because of surgery to his right knee, Canada suffered without him. The team lost a humiliating game to Switzerland 2-0, then dropped its quarterfinal against Russia by the same score. In both losses the Canadians were unable to generate rushes from the back—Niedermayer's specialty—which allowed the opposition to bottle up the team's talented forwards in center ice. Overall the team scored just three goals in its last four games. "We missed Scotty's presence," recalled Jarome Iginla, a member of the '02, '06 and '10 teams. "Who can say what kind of a difference one man could have made, but he plays a great two-way game and we really didn't replace him."

After Niedermayer won his last Cup, he went into semiretirement. He spent more time with his four sons and became more active with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. When he came back to the ice, rejoining Anaheim several months into the 2007-08 season, he did so well aware that the Games were only two years away. "I can't say the Olympics didn't factor in," he said of his decision to unretire. "I think it would have been hard to sit at home knowing that an Olympics was taking place so close to where I grew up."

A LITTLE MORE THAN 500 KILOMETERS FROM CANADA Hockey Place in Vancouver, Scott Niedermayer, Edmonton-born but raised in Cranbrook, B.C., got his early hockey education on the choppy ice of an unglamorous outdoor rink built by local firefighters. From this humble start he became one of the most efficient skaters in the NHL—a player who has sometimes been called the best puck-moving defenseman since Bobby Orr.

Cranbrook—which also produced Niedermayer's brother, Rob, and at least a dozen other NHLers—refers to itself as Hockeyville. The city hall dedicates one day a year for workers to show up wearing the jersey of their favorite player; Niedermayer's number 27 has been a popular choice. He was the second-oldest skater on Canada's 2010 roster and one of only four from the '02 gold medal team, and his steadying leadership was especially vital because Canada had one of the tournament's youngest back lines. The group included Drew Doughty, 20, and Brent Seabrook and Shea Weber, both 24.

One lesson from Niedermayer came in the second period of that preliminary-round loss to the U.S. Though not known as especially scrappy, Niedermayer uses physical play purposefully and can at times get under foes' skin. (In an '01 playoff series his chippiness so enraged former Toronto enforcer Tie Domi that Domi leveled him with an elbow, knocking Niedermayer out of the next four games with a concussion.) Canada trailed 3-2, and the final seconds of the period were ticking away when U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson skated over Canada's blue line and accidentally bumped into Niedermayer. At another time, in a different setting, Niedermayer might have let the harmless-looking play go. Instead he grabbed Johnson around the neck and shoved him against the boards. The message was, We're not taking anything from you guys, and its echo resounded through the Canadian roster. "Scotty was maybe giving [the Americans] something to think about," Iginla said. "And that also let us know that, whoa, our captain's in a bad mood. We need to pick it up."

In fact the Canadians were the better team for much of that third period, outshooting the U.S. squad 14-4 and mounting a furious late charge. One game later the team turned things around for good, and by the time the medal ceremony began, it was clear that the captain had earned his letter.