It’s a sense of pride…to be looked upon as a leader. My role has changed over the years, obviously I’m not scoring 100 points like I did in the past. That is kind of the nature of the beast and your game has to change at some point. I’m the person that can go out there and help lead by example with effort and help these young kids learn how to be professionals not only on the ice, but off the ice and in the community.
Riley Nelson, Captain of the Colorado Eagles, has seen his fair share of hockey games and he knows how to keep everything in perspective. At 36 years old, he is the elder statesman of the Eagles Hockey team. He has been with the team since the 2003-2004 season, back when the team was part of the CHL.
Nelson grew up in Cranbrook, British Columbia, home to NHLers Steve Yzerman, Rob and Steve Niedermayer and retired NHL and Olympic Coach Tom Renney to name just a few with hockey connections to the town. His parents got him on the ice early, as his older brother was learning to play the game and they could see how much Riley took to it. He played on his first team when he was 5 or 6 and his hockey career just took off from there.
He really enjoyed playing the game and skating around so he didn’t really watch a lot of hockey until he was 10 or 12 years old. This was the time when Wayne Gretzky was with the Edmonton Oilers and the rivalry with the Calgary Flames was heated. These were the games Nelson would watch, ones that featured “the Great One” and he would relive some of Gretzky’s moves when he took to the ice himself.
“When you are a kid, you are out there playing hockey, there are certain players that you want to pretend to be. For me, it was Wayne Gretzky, Messier and I even pretended to be goaltenders. I think I just so enjoyed playing hockey that that was the biggest influence for me.”
Nelson grew up in a town that was known for their hockey players and his brother played with Scott Niedermayer. He watched his brother and Scott practice every day and learned a lot about the game just from watching them play. One of his best coaches was when he played bantam, Coach Hunter, and Nelson played with his son as they grew up. Coach Hunter really instilled a sense of work ethic and what you need to play the game, especially when your parents are making sacrifices for the game.
“When you are playing travel hockey, your parents are putting a lot of money and time into it. I think he kind of portrayed the image that you know, you’re not out here just to have fun, you are representing your town, and your parents are putting a lot of time into this and expect you to work hard and the fun is a part of it. You shouldn’t be playing hockey if you aren’t having fun, but your parents are dedicating a lot of their time and money and energy into something and you need to fulfill your end as well.”
When it came time to make a decision of where to play, college or in the WHL, he opted to head to Michigan Tech, in part because he was a bit older at the time and he didn’t want to give up any scholarship rights to play in the Western League for maybe one or two years. He also felt that college would be the best route for him over the long term. He felt a little bit of regret, committing to 4 years of college but he wouldn’t go back and change it. Being a smaller player, Nelson didn’t think he would have been ready to play professionally at 20 years old regardless.
“I’ve been little my whole life, but I was 140 pounds when I went to college as a freshman so I was really small. I needed that extra time to develop physically and mentally. In that time you learn how to play the game as an individual and you know what is the best way to play for yourself.”
His biggest influence on his hockey career didn’t come until later when he had already turned pro. The Colorado Eagles Head Coach Chris Stewart has made a big impact on Nelson. The two share a past as Stewart coached his brother on the Olds Grizzlys for four years in the AJHL. He is also one of the main reasons Nelson made the move to join the Eagles and that he’s stayed for so many seasons.
Colorado was an ideal place for a British Columbia transplant, the weather and what is available to do outside is very similar. Nelson’s wife grew up in Georgia and her family is still there; living in Colorado makes it easy to visit both sides of the family since it is right in the middle. He loves living in such a beautiful place, so it’s been an easy choice to stay for so long with the same team.
“I love to play here, I love playing for Stewart, and I had always wanted to have a home base, and not bounce around from team to team. I’m happy to be with a team competing for the championship every year and we have. Every year that I’ve been here we’ve always been a contender, we’ve always had winning seasons.”
The Colorado Eagles have compiled an impressive record, winning two Ray Miron’s Presidents Cups, three regular season titles, five conference season titles and six division titles in eight seasons as part of the CHL. They continue to have success in the ECHL and although all teams in the Western Conference make it to the playoffs, the Eagles have ranked within the top 4 teams in the Conference each year since joining the league in 2011.
Playing with a consistently successful team gives a player incentive to stay and many of the Eagles players are returnees along with the coaching staff. Along with Nelson, Assistant Coach Aaron Schneekloth was a former player who turned to coaching after ending his career with Colorado. Nelson says he has always been satisfied with playing for Colorado and that there is a mutual respect and partnership that is working that isn’t always true with minor league teams.
“I’ve been on teams that are just horribly run, players are treated with no respect, paychecks aren’t on time, sometimes they don’t show up for weeks at a time, apartments are in terrible shape, buses, I mean you name it, endless amounts of horror for the players. They eliminate all that stuff here. They treat you with respect, you are treated like you should be treated and that helps a guy perform. When all those things aren’t an issue and all you worry about is getting yourself to the rink, being prepared and playing hard, it makes a difference.”
It isn’t just the Colorado organization that works hard to support its players, the fans are a huge reason the players feel at home with the Eagles. The arena is consistently sold out, even on a Wednesday night, which is a pretty special phenomenon. Nelson says that barring a blizzard outside, the fans show up and cheer for the team.
“We have what I believe are the best fans in minor pro sports. They are smart and they know the difference between a team that comes out and doesn’t play hard or one that comes out and gives them everything they have. Even if we lose on a night like that they are ok with it. They just want to see you go out there and work hard and entertain them and that’s what we try to do.”
One of the main reasons Nelson thinks the fans are so vested in the team is because the team spends a lot of time giving back to the community they are a part of. The players go out to schools, hospitals and there are many community promotions throughout the year. For example, this past March, the Eagles, in conjunction with the Larimer and Weld Country Sheriff’s Departments and Lucky Joe’s of Fort Collins, raised over $41,000 to help a young boy Wesley Martin and his family. Wesley has a large cyst on his brain that will require specialized surgery to remove this summer. It was a procedure that his family’s medical plan didn’t cover. This is just one of the many ways the Colorado Eagles Foundation impacts the community. Nelson thinks it’s important for young players coming in to the organization to understand that being involved in the community is a big part of being a professional hockey player. As the Captain, he hopes that through his effort not only on the ice, but off it, that the young guys understand that connection with the community.
“There are a lot of things that the Eagles take pride in and community is right at the top. It’s the reason why the seats are filled every night and it’s not just because we are a winning hockey team. It’s because we give back to the community.”
He also thinks it’s important to keep everything on an even keel and keep focused on what you want. He is impressed with how driven the young guys are, especially with their diets and their personal training programs. It is so much different than even when he was younger, it’s a very different world. But Nelson says it is easy for the young guys to get distracted and lose their focus, even with all of their specialized training programs. And sometimes, they spend so much time on being an athlete that they forget about the other things in life.
“You can’t let one thing in your life control everything else. It’s very important to work hard but you have to keep everything on an even level. Just in your life. I mean its ok to go out every once in a while to celebrate…but you can’t let hockey rule all of your relationships in your life.”
Nelson really learned the importance of keeping things in perspective when he suffered an injury to his shoulder in the middle of last year. It ended his playing season and he needed surgery to repair the damage. Surprisingly, it was his first major surgery of his playing career. The physical toll of the injury was the easiest part to work through, but the mental and emotional part of the injury lingered for him. It changed his relationship with his teammates while he was recovering, not being able to take part in the normal routine of the season.
“Going to the rink and seeing the guys, it changes because you’re not in the trenches working every day. You’re not in the locker room during the games and on the road. You feel like an outcast because you aren’t putting in the work. You are putting in the work to get yourself better, but sometimes you see the team struggle, or you see the highs and lows and you want to be there with the guys.”
Working through an injury was also hard on his family. At the time his son was only 1 year old and as much as he wanted to be able to help his wife, he couldn’t.
“When I hurt my shoulder I couldn’t even pick him up and my wife had to do all the work. That’s hard sitting and just watching. “
Battling through his injury, he realized how much of the day to day stuff one takes for granted, not just the hockey part of life. He felt that he took for granted all the things he could do, even while injured and that for so many people, their predicament was much more dire than his.
“It’s very humbling and you feel sorry for yourself, but then you have to sit back and think, I have it pretty good compared to a lot of people. All I have to worry about is getting myself out of bed, go to rehab and work on my shoulder, it’s not that hard.”
It would have been easy to just hang up the skates after his injury, especially after such a long playing career. Instead, he focused on getting his shoulder ready to play hockey. Nelson worked really hard to push out of his mind that self doubt or to think about what he would do after hockey, because in his heart he knew what he was going to do.
“I came back because I wanted to play and I wanted to win another championship. I didn’t want to end my year and my career in Colorado that way.”
Riley Nelson wants to leave hockey on his terms and he and his team are making yet another run in the Kelly Cup playoffs. Both the Eagles and Nelson have been a match for so long, it is hard to imagine a team without the veteran Captain leading the way.
“I would like to think that I’ve given everything that I have on the ice for the Eagles and I think that mutual respect and partnership is working for both sides. “