*This is a feature that I wrote for the Cranbrook Townsman based on an interview I did with former NHL players Scott and Rob Niedermayer at Cranbrook’s 2017 Rogers Hometown Hockey event.*
“Every hockey player’s dream starts on a frozen pond in a small town — I was no different growing up here.”
Rob Niedermayer can’t help but smile as he thinks about his humble upbringing in the Kootenays.
“After school, I can remember my buddies and I would go shovel the snow off the pond and scrimmage, pretending we were some NHL stars until dark,” the retired NHL player recalls while sitting in the Sportsnet mobile studio on Baker Street on Saturday afternoon. “We’d do that day after day.”
Rob is visiting downtown Cranbrook for Rogers Hometown hockey, a weekly celebration of community hockey hosted by Ron MacLean and Tara Slone.
Although he still lives in the area, the event is a special opportunity for him to return to the spotlight and show off his city.
“When I heard that Hometown Hockey was coming to Cranbrook, I was really excited,” Rob says. “Cranbrook is a great hockey town [and] it’s nice to share it with Canada.”
His older brother Scott — one of the most accomplished defenceman in Canadian hockey history — is in the corner, having just given his little bro a hard time about his greying hair.
“Brush off some of that snow, Rob.”
Although, together, the brothers have accomplished amazing feats while playing professional hockey across the world, back in Cranbrook, they’re just a couple of kids.
“I was tremendously fortunate to grow up here, being able to ski in the morning and play hockey at night,” Scott says. “ To go on to play in the NHL and have some success and play for Team Canada as well, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t dreaming that much when I was a kid that this was all going to happen.”
‘Some success in the NHL’ is a major understatement. As part of their 100 anniversary, the league recently named an official 100 greatest players list and Scott made the cut right alongside Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
Through 17 seasons with the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Ducks, the elder Niedermayer won an unbelievable four Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and a Norris. Playing for Canada internationally, Scott won two Olympic gold medals, a World Championship, a World Junior Championship, and a World Cup.
For his part, Rob staked out an impressive career putting up over 450 points in almost 1,200 NHL games while playing for five different teams and teaming up with Scott to win the Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Ducks.
The tremendous success is something the boys say they owe to the community they grew up in.
“There were a lot of people that helped me along the way [in Cranbrook],” Scott says. “[We] had some good support here growing up in youth hockey, the coaches we had, and our parents did a lot as well. It’s amazing to just sit here and look back at everything and how it’s all played out. I’m very lucky.”
Although they may have pretended to be NHL players while whizzing around the lake at the Ramparts, it was the local teams that had them in awe when they were growing up.
“It was a big deal to go down to the Memorial Arena and watch the Cranbrook Colts play Junior B or the Cranbrook Royals Senior Men’s team,” Scott says. “We were excited [at] seven or eight years old to go down to the rink to watch these guys play.
“To us, they were the best in the world — in our world anyway — and a lot of those guys from the Royals were our coaches when we were kids. We benefited from that for sure.”
As a part of giving back to the town, the brothers served as minority owners of the WHL’s Kootenay Ice from their inception in 1998 until last year when they sold their shares to the Chynoweth family
With the team for sale and fear of relocation at a paramount in the community, the Niedermayers say they are hopeful the Ice can stay in the Key City.
“[We] have deep feelings to keep [the Ice] here in Cranbrook,” Rob says. “It’s done remarkably well here for a long time here [and] we’ve had some great teams. It’s just an exciting brand of hockey to watch. To have that calibre of hockey in Cranbrook, we’re very lucky. So, it’s something that we feel strongly should stay in Cranbrook and hopefully it does.”
Scott echoes those sentiments but adds that he understands the reality of the situation.
“I think people enjoy having the team here [but] at the same time, Cranbrook is a smaller town and it is a business as well,” he says. “If they’re unable to support the team, business decisions will get made, unfortunately, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that things will work out here and that we will find answers to keep the team here.”
Without a stake in the team anymore, however, the Niedermayers are mostly focused on their families.
“My biggest passion [now that I’m retired from hockey] is watching my kids grow up,” says Rob who moved back to the East Kootenays after his career ended in 2012. “When you’re playing, you’re away a lot and it takes a lot of time away from that.
“Now, I have a great chance of spending time with them and just seeing them and taking them to gymnastics or coaching them in soccer. I’ve really loved that. It’s been a lot of fun to see them grow.”
Scott, who is raising his four boys in Anaheim, is also now, for the most part, also a stay-at-home dad.
“My biggest passion is just getting my kids to where they have to go, I’m always psyched when I get them there on time,” Scott laughs. “Doing all the stuff [with the kids] is a lot right now. I help coach their [hockey] teams and I enjoy doing that and watching them have fun.”
Both men relish in the opportunity to get their kids out onto a Cranbrook pond, as they enjoyed so much when they were youngsters.
Rob has a little pond at his place that serves as a great family rink.
“I’ve been going out with my three daughters and that’s where we’ve been trying to teach them how to skate,” Rob says. “They haven’t really taken up hockey too much, but they’re just learning how to skate and it brings back a lot of great memories.”
While Scott lives in California and can’t relive his childhood as much as he might want to, his family has come up to Rob’s place during the last three Christmases.
“[Coming from] southern California, it’s a really special thing for them to be able to do,” he says. “We actually just got back from Quebec City [as well], where one of my boys was in the Peewee tournament last week and we brought the whole team out a few times to skate outside and obviously kids from California get a huge kick out of being able to do that.
“I have great memories of doing that around town here on the different ponds and lakes that we went out on with family and friends [and it’s great to share that].”
During Sunday night’s broadcast of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes game — the centrepiece of the Hometown Hockey weekend — Scott and Rob had the chance to tell their Cranbrook stories to the entire country during the first intermission.
While their crowning moment may have happened on a rink in Anaheim when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup and captain Scott passed the trophy to Rob, the boys’ hearts are still in Cranbrook.
“I’ve always said that [Cranbrook] is one of the best-kept secrets around,” Rob says. “It’s such a beautiful spot [and] it’s produced so many good sports people. We love it here and hopefully, it will continue to get the notoriety it deserves.”