By Al MacLeod
NHL Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk has done it all in the world of hockey as a player.
But after the three-time Stanley Cup champion retired following the 2006-2007 season, he traded his skates and hockey stick for a suit and desk when he took over as the general manager of the Dallas Stars in 2009.
As his team goes through the rigours of its training camp in Charlottetown for the second year in a row, Nieuwendyk took time out of his busy schedule to have a discussion with the Guardian on his team, its current ownership situation and other hot issues in the world of hockey.
The Stars got off to a hot start last season coming out of its first training camp on the Island- going 4-0 to start the year - and hung in the playoff hunt until the last day of the regular season.
Nieuwendyk said the team's early success was due in large part to the great camp it had while in Charlottetown.
"Last year was our first year and I really think that we gained a valuable experience coming here. It brought the team close," he said.
"I think early on it was really good for us. It kind of just set the table for the rest of training camp and this year it will be the same thing. It's good. I think when you're in Texas it's hot and I know all the years I played there it was important to get away for a few days and this is a great town with a small community feel that loves hockey. It's a good start."
Although P.E.I.-native Brad Richards signed with the New York Rangers in the offseason, the Stars still value the relationship with the city and province, Nieuwendyk said.
"This year may be more important in some ways. Last year we had Brad Richards and he always a real tie to the community and this year we have seven new faces with the team. So I think it's important we mingle in with the town like we did last year and the guys come together, that's how you start to build your team."
The Stars ownership situation has been a bit of a question mark over the past couple of seasons and looks to be coming to a resolution in the near future.
Although the resources may not have been there under that scenario to bring a lot of high-price talent to the Stars, Nieuwendyk was not interested in making excuses.
"My responsibility is to the guys in the locker room to try put a good team on the ice and build a good team. It doesn't matter that we don't have that ownership issue resolved yet. It will happen but it's never affected what goes on the walls in our locker room. The guys believe in their teammates and they're working to complete and I think we showed last year that regardless of the situation we can compete, he said.
"I think you look for character people, you try to bring pieces in that help build what you're trying to do and I really believe we're doing that. We have a good mix of players, we have good, talented players and high-character players. I think the misconception is if you get a new owner and you have all this money to play with. I'm not so sure I would do things differently. Obviously, sure, you have more resources but you're still going to look for character guys and we've added those kind of guys this summer."
On the issue of head shots, the Stars GM said it was as much the players responsibility as it is the league itself.
"Really what it comes down to you can sort through the language all you want to it has to become awareness with the players and behavioural changes. I think we've kind of gotten away from that. I think it's the mentality that you go and target the head that we're trying to get rid of."
After training camp, Nieuwendyk said the organization will assess how it went and will keep in contact with the city.
The deal is currently on a year-to-year basis and with the new ownership eventually coming in, everything will need to be evaluated.
The Stars are in town today and tomorrow with practice sessions set for 9:30 this morning and 10:15 a.m. tomorrow. Both are at the MacLauchlan Arena and are open to the public.
Stars GM Nieuwendyk comments on an offseason dominated by tragedy
It has been a tough summer in terms of tragic events hitting the hockey world with the deaths of former player Wade Belak and current players Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jetsand and Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers as well as the tragedy in Russia with the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team jet crash, which claimed the lives of most of the roster.
It has been suggested in the media the deaths of Belak, Rypien and Boogaard are connected with the pressures of being an enforcer in the NHL.
But Nieuwendyk isn't convinced that is the case.
"I think people have to be careful. You can take this discussion into an area of depression, which I don't really understand, but I know that it's a very real thing and that's separate from the tough guy role in the NHL," Nieuwendyk said.
"There's guys that score goals for a living that suffer from depression. It's a sensitive issue and a sensitive topic and I think the NHL is taking very critical notice to the events that happened this summer and will continue to do that."
The KHL tragedy hits especially close to home for the Stars organization as one of the players on the jet was former team defenceman Karlis Skrastins.
Skrastins spent two seasons with the Stars between 2009-2011 and was among the players at camp in Charlottetown last season.
Nieuwendyk said the news hit the team hard.
"It's difficult. It's difficult when it hits so close to home like that but I think we've tried to do our best (to honour him and move on)," he said.
"He really exemplified a lot of the things we've been doing here with our team. He was a great teammate and a great friend. For a guy who wasn't really blessed with overwhelming talent, he gave everything he had each and every night to his teammates, laid himself on the line and you have to admire that. Our guys had a difficult time because they knew what he added to the team and what he added to the culture of our team. There's no book, there's no manual to tell you how to react to situations like this."
The team paid special tribute to Skrastins during a team meeting when the team arrived in Charlottetown Friday night.