When Matt Nieto was a kid in hockey-crazed Long Beach — OK, the hockey-crazed part isn’t true — his grandfather bought him a mini-hockey stick.
“I just fell in love with the game,” the Avalanche winger, now 25, said Monday. “I used to love rollerblading. I used to sleep in ’em. So once I got that hockey stick, it was game over.”
His parents, Jesse, a longshoreman, and Mary, a makeup artist, signed him up for roller hockey at the YMCA.
“I was watching the Mighty Ducks movies,” Matt said. “That’s when those were popular. My parents saw how much I liked it and how much I was playing, so they signed me up and two years after I started roller, I started ice and never wanted to play roller again.”
Fast forward: Soon, Nieto was considered an L.A. Hockey Club prodigy, and among his teammates were Rocco Grimaldi, now with the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate at San Antonio after playing six games this season for Colorado in two injury-caused callups; and Emerson Etem, who has played 173 NHL games and signed Sunday with a Swiss team.
“It was good development for me in Southern California,” Nieto said. “I was fortunate to play for good coaches and play alongside good players who have made appearances in the NHL. It was crazy, and now it’s really grown in California, so that’s good to see.”
As a sophomore in high school, Nieto went across the country to play for Salisbury School, a college prep in Connecticut, and was there one year before joining the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor for two seasons. Then it was on to Boston University for three seasons before signing in 2013 with the San Jose Sharks, who had drafted him in 2011.
“That was a huge development stage for me,” he said of BU. “I was able to play for a great coach in Jack Parker, who’s a legend out there, and I played with some great players.”
Now, a year after the Avalanche claimed him on waivers from the Sharks at mid-season, the speedy Nieto has been a significant part of the Avalanche’s resuscitation, settling in at left wing on the efficient third line with veterans Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau.
It’s a recovery for him after he was a healthy scratch in five of the Avalanche’s first eight games of 2017-18, and he had his eighth goal of the season as Colorado beat Anaheim 3-1 for its seventh consecutive victory.
“We’ve been together for quite some time now,” Nieto said of his line. “It seems like as time goes by, we keep getting better and better and growing chemistry. It’s important for us to play up to our role, and lately we’ve been doing that.”
On a team in sore need of secondary scoring beyond the Nathan MacKinnon-centered top line, it’s significant that Soderberg (9), Comeau (8) and Nieto — mostly playing together at even strength and also playing significant roles on the Avs’ successful penalty kill — have pitched in with 25 goals this season.
“We all bring an element to each other’s game that helps each other,” Nieto said. “I can bring the speed in on the forecheck. Those are big guys that make plays and all three of us like to go to hard areas, so it’s a good combination. I think the world of them. I’ve been around them a lot more this year, and spending time with them in the locker room and at the rink, they’re just very professional guys who have been in the league so long. They know what it takes to be a success in this league, and I’m just happy to be with those two.”
In retrospect, the addition of the speedy Nieto was at the leading edge of Joe Sakic’s attempt to get the Avalanche younger and faster, even as a horrible season progressed. Nieto had 7 goals in 43 games for Colorado last season, then signed a new one-year, $1-million deal as a restricted free agent in late July, scrubbing a scheduled arbitration hearing.
“At this time last year, I was just getting here,” Nieto said. “It was a tough first half of the year last year for me (at San Jose), not playing much. I felt like when I came here, they gave me a really good opportunity once I came in, and I was really fortunate and happy to come back and re-sign here. Now, the way things are going, it was like everybody reset over the summer.”
As a waiver acquisition, Nieto wasn’t expected to light it up, but he has turned out to be a solid addition — especially after getting back in the lineup after his early season scratches.
“You take it game by game and just work as hard as you can,” Nieto said. “That’s something all three of us take pride in. When we’re doing that, it shows on the ice.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said the line has meshed.
“I think the key to that line is, they’re perfect in the structure on most nights,” Bednar said. “Because they’re predictable to themselves, heading into the right areas of the ice, always making the right reads, there’s often times in tight checking games that they spend less time in their zone and they’re safe with the puck. Then they’ll hunt it down and get on the forecheck and get it back. In a lot of ways, they’re similar.
“I think (Nieto) brings a speed element to that line. He pushes D back. And he’s more physical on the puck and picking up loose pucks, and he plays in the hard areas, I think more than people probably give him credit for. We certainly notice it and, again, the job those three guys do on the penalty kill. They’ve been really, really consistent in what they do for us.”
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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