ANAHEIM — The accolades came from the right guy at the right time for Cam Fowler.
When new Anaheim Ducks associate coach Scott Niedermayer was asked about the potential of the third-year defenceman — who showed speed and poise in 152 consecutive starts yet was combined minus-52 in his first two seasons — the four-time Stanley Cup champion spoke of stardom.
He knew the kid was logging 23 minutes a night as an 18-year-old rookie and knows he’s better now at age 21. Especially after raising franchise expectations when Fowler signed a five-year, $20 million US contract extension just before the lockout.
“The sky is the limit, I’d say,” said Niedermayer. “There’s so much to being one of the top players. You obviously need some talent and some smarts and you need the work ethic and the drive to compete. Cam is a great kid and a great skater who’s really smart.
“If I can get him to understand the parts of the game that I know took me time to figure out — or even want to learn — it would help him. It’s the little things in your end, the dirty jobs necessary to win as a team. If I can convey that to him, maybe I can help him speed it (development) up.”
Niedermayer speaks as effortlessly as he moved the puck during his 18-year career in which the Edmonton native accumulated 740 points in 1,263 regular-season games with New Jersey and Anaheim. Despite retiring two years ago, he wanted to give something back and maintain flexibility.
Niedermayer will be the coaching eye in the sky for most home games and practices and travel to occasional road games, but the wisdom he imparted on Fowler during a short post-lockout training camp was immense — like cramming for an exam.
“He’s such a soft-spoken guy, but when he says something, you take it in for all that it’s worth,” said Fowler. “It’s little situations that happen out there and for me to play my off side — the right side which Scotty played his whole career — I’m trying to adjust. The way I see the ice on that side is a lot different and I’m trying to put myself in the right positions to make the right play.
“We talk about foot positioning and how he adjusted … Our styles are similar and even in the short time, he’s been very helpful. Each day at camp we had 10 minutes of conversation about what happened in practice and he’d either come to me or I’d go to him with a question. The relationship is good.”
It should be. Fowler stayed with the Niedermayer family during his rookie season. And there was always a feeling that NHL success and the gold medals his mentor earned in international competition — world junior, world championship, World Cup and Olympics — would be the foundation of finding a way back into the game.
If Teemu Selanne can excel at age 42, the 39-year-old Niedermayer could at least be a teacher because he is at peace with no longer competing. First asked 1 1/2 years ago to join the Ducks staff, he passed because of only being a year removed from playing and wanted more time with his family.
“I didn’t really have any big goal with what my plans were,” said Niedermayer. “It wasn’t like I was going to be a head coach in five years. The last couple of years, I started doing player development work and was then asked again this past summer.”
Niedermayer was tracked down en route to Kamloops where the Blazers retired his No. 28 jersey Friday. It rekindled the memory of the 1992 Memorial Cup when his long stretch pass to Zac Boyer with 11 seconds remaining in regulation time resulted in a 5-4 victory over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. It was the WHL franchise’s first of three Cups in four years and Niedermayer was named MVP of the 1992 tournament.
“To think back of how fortunate I’ve been and it started in Cranbrook with some of the coaches I’ve had because it’s a big step to play junior hockey,” said Niedermayer. “And to go to an organization like the Blazers and learn how to have success, I was pretty lucky to be in that environment.
“It was kind of an interesting year. I was drafted the year before (third overall) and stuck around for a few months (with New Jersey) but wasn’t playing much and it was a challenge mentally two switch gears and get mentally focused.”
That’s the challenge for Fowler. Niedermayer never scored more than 15 goals in any season but his complete game is what the young Ducks defenceman needs to develop. It took the flu to end his ironman streak on Jan. 19 in Vancouver but he still wanted to play to improve on just five goals last season. And to improve that plus-minus.
“A lot of things have gone wrong for a couple of years and certainly my defensive game could be better,” said Fowler. “At times, I was looking more for offence and not worrying about defence, but I’ve also played some good hockey along the way.”
And this season, with an assist from Niedermayer.