Hockey players can get their start in a lot of different ways, but there are two paths that seem most common in North America. Most players either come up through the junior system in Canada or play college hockey. Matt Nieto fits into the latter option, having gone to Boston University to continue his hockey career. Unlike a lot of other hockey players, though, Nieto grew up in Long Beach, California.
Growing up in Southern California, there are understandably fewer chances for someone to start playing ice hockey. Even Nieto got into playing hockey on rollerblades first with the help of his grandfather.
“I was really into skating at that point, just rollerblading and my grandfather got me a hockey stick that I would play with for hours,” Nieto said. “My parents decided to sign me up for roller hockey at the YMCA. I played there for a few years before making the transition to ice hockey. Then I just fell in love with ice hockey and stuck with it.”
Despite California not being a traditional hockey market, Nieto still feels like he had plenty of chances. In fact, more players are coming from California. Emerson Etem, now playing in the Anaheim Ducks system, also came from Long Beach.
“I was fortunate enough to play for a good coach and play for a good team that made it to nationals,” Nieto said on having chances to play hockey in California. “I was really lucky and we had a bunch of guys on that team that are playing professionally today.”
Even though Nieto grew up in California, he committed to the east coast at an early age. When he was 14, he moved out east for prep school. During that time, he was able to visit colleges in Boston.
“I love the city of Boston. It was just a matter of BU [Boston University] or BC [Boston College],” Nieto said. “When I went on my official visit to BU, the guys were awesome. I was in love with the school and that’s how I made my decision.”
At Boston University, Nieto got the chance to play under an amazing Head Coach in Jack Parker. During his career, Parker coached four players from the 1980 US Olympic hockey team and a number of current and former NHL players. He has also won 3 NCAA National Championships and 21 Beanpot Championships.
“That was another reason that I wanted to play at BU, to play for Jack Parker,” Nieto said. “He’s a legendary coach and he always brought out the best in me. We had a great relationship and I think he really prepared me for the next level.”
Nieto had a successful first season at BU, registering 23 points in 39 games. After that season, the San Jose Sharks selected him in the second round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. It was their highest draft pick that year.
“It was crazy and it was a thrill. I couldn’t be any happier that San Jose was the team that drafted me,” Nieto said, thinking of when he got drafted. “I moved away from home at a young age. To get picked up by a California team was really special.”
After three seasons playing at BU, Nieto has made the decision to forgo his final year of college hockey to join the Sharks organization. It also coincides with Jack Parker retiring from coaching. It was a decision Nieto thought a lot about, but really felt that this was the right move for him.
“At the end of the year, I just felt that I was ready for a new challenge,” Nieto said about the decision. “I love Boston University, it was great for me for 3 years. But, I’m also ready for new competition. I want the challenge and I can’t wait to get started.”
On March 23rd, Nieto played his final game for BU in a tournament in the TD Garden in Boston. On April 2nd, he played his first game with the Worcester Sharks in the American Hockey League on a tryout. It was his first shot at playing professionally and it taught him a few things.
“It was great that I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to play those games with Worcester. It was nice to get a taste of what the pro game is like,” Nieto said about playing in Worcester. “I was able to see what I need to improve on just in those 11 games. I’ve been working hard this off season so far and I can’t wait for training camp.”
The transition from college hockey to professional hockey can be a difficult one. The players are even more talented. There are also twice as many games and that can be difficult to adjust to. Since Nieto had the chance to play in the AHL with Worcester, he realized the biggest differences in the games and what he had to work on.
“It’s a man’s game now,” Nieto said. “The guys are stronger and faster. There’s less time and space. It’s definitely going to be an adjustment. I’m glad I was able to test the waters in Worcester.”
“Strength is something I’m working on this offseason along with gaining weight. I have a very strict training program I’m sticking to right now,” Nieto said about his offseason. “I go on the ice about twice a week for skill work. Now it’s more strength training and off-ice workouts.”
Next season, Nieto will join the Sharks organization full time. In all likelihood, he will be in the AHL with Worcester while he continues to develop his game. “I’m a reliable two-way forward. I’m mostly known for my offensive ability. I think my defensive game is something that’s overlooked a little bit. I think my best asset is my speed,” Nieto said.
Sharks fans can look for Nieto to try to make an immediate impact this fall. His speed and offensive skill led to 44 goals over three seasons with BU. He added two goals in his 11 games with Worcester and hopes to continue that success this season. Keep your eyes out for the San Jose Sharks prospect.