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Niedermayer can outdo another 23

Rob Niedermayer wears No. 23 for a good reason.

"It's weird for a hockey player to say, but it's because I like Michael Jordan," he said.

On Saturday, Niedermayer, a center for the Medicine Hat Tigers, has the opportunity to go higher in the draft than his favorite basketball player _ the NHL draft, that is.

Jordan was taken with the third pick overall. Niedermayer may be taken second by the San Jose Sharks at the entry draft in Quebec City.

But if Niedermayer is still around when the Tampa Bay Lightning picks at No. 3, he may be playing with bolts on his uniform next season.

"I've seen him play since he was 12," said Lightning head scout John Chapman, who is based in Western Canada. "He could step in and play immediately. He and (Alexandre) Daigle are the purest skaters in the draft. And Robbie has that Pat Lafontaine gear."

In other words, Niedermayer can go from 0 to 100 mph like Don Garlits' dragster.

"He is a very powerful skater," Medicine Hat coach Dennis Polonich said. "And he has great breakaway speed."

Niedermayer also has the size (6 feet 2, 190 pounds) to go with the speed _ sort of like Herschel Walker on skates.

Niedermayer, who is ranked No. 4 by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau, learned to skate at a young age. His parents enrolled him and his older brother Scott (a New Jersey Devils defenseman who made the NHL's all-rookie team this season), in figure skating school at ages 6 and 7. A few years later, the brothers also took skating lessons at Audrey Bakewell's program for power skating.

"At the time, we didn't want to go, but it has paid off," the younger Niedermayer said. "Parents are sometimes right."

Rob has asked Scott what to expect in the NHL.

"When you are younger, you don't think that the players go through a lot of tough, hard work," Rob said. "But he has told me a lot of the stuff they go through. They practice every day and they have a tough travel schedule. The grind. So you have to be tough both physically and mentally to play in the NHL."

One day Rob, an honor-roll student, would like to follow in his father's footsteps and become a doctor. But for now he has his mind set on playing in the NHL. He's got the tools and the smarts. He's a solid player on the power-play and penalty-killing units.

But by his own admission, his weakness is his lack of focus at times. "I've got to be able to play for all 60 minutes of the game," he said. "Sometimes I go through stretches when I'm flat, and I'm not sure why."

Despite inconsistent play last season, he helped Canada win the World Junior Championships, and he produced 43 goals and 34 assists in 52 games for Medicine Hat. However, his season was cut short when he injured his right knee with three games left before the playoffs.

"I was pushed into the referee, and I heard it kind of snap," Niedermayer recalled. "San Jose invited me down there to have a look at the knee. Dr. (Arthur) Ting, who's done some work on the (San Francisco) 49ers, did the operation. The knee's fine and I'm going to work all summer to make it stronger."

He also plans to play a little golf, like the other No. 23.

Rob Niedermayer facts

Hometown: Cranbrook, B.C. Born: Dec. 28, 1974

Position: Center Height: 6-2 Weight: 200 lbs.

Season Team League GP G A Pts PIM

1992-93 Medicine Hat Tigers WHL 52 43 34 77 67

1992-93 Canada World Juniors 7 0 2 2 4

1991-92 Medicine Hat Tigers WHL 71 32 46 78 77

1990-91 Medicine Hat Tigers WHL 71 24 26 50 8