Matt Nieto scored his first career Stanley Cup playoff goal for the San Jose Sharks last night and there was his longshoreman dad, looking very much like a Long Beach longshoreman, watching from the stands in Los Angeles.
The story of Nieto and his ascension from Long Beach street blading brat to NHL regular is one worth hearing. It's a story mainly about Nieto and his mother and the circle of hockey that eveloped their lives. It is told well by The Hockey News correspondent David Pollak in the April 7 edition of the San Jose Mercury News.
Nieto asked for rollerblades at the age of 2 and his mother Mary said she could later always hear where he was in the neighborhood by the clicking sound of his wheels. He rarely took them off. Nieto's love for hockey kept him out of trouble, growing up in a dangerous district where drive-by shooting were not uncommon.
"Probably everybody he hung out with is either in a gang or on drugs or something," Mary Nieto told Pollak. "I think hockey saved his life, absolutely. Hockey became a way out for a Mexican-American kid in Southern California."
Nieto later went to Connecticut to play prep school hockey, then earned a scholarship at Boston University. He was the first Californian drafted by the Sharks when San Jose picked him in the second round of 2011. After three NCAA seasons and 11 AHL games under his belt, Nieto made the Sharks out of camp, dazzling with his speed and puck skills.
The excitement of his rookie NHL season has been tempered by the reality that his mother is dealing with advanced breast cancer. Because Matt has a sister with Down syndrome and autism and due to Mary's medical condition, she has been able to attend just one Sharks games this season. But the two of them talk by phone every day and Matt's rise in the hockey world keeps Mary from becoming too pre-occupied with her own ailing health.
"He wouldn't even talk about the hockey game," Mary Nieto said. "He'd be like, 'How're you feeling today? What's going on? When's your next doctor's appointment?' He was just real compassionate and always thinking about me."
When the Sharks drew the Los Angeles Kings in an opening-round playoff series, Nieto knew he'd face the team and favorite player – Dustin Brown – he grew up idolizing. More importantly, Nieto knew he'd be playing at least a couple games in Los Angeles with his mother near by.
The cancer treatment kept Mary Nieto from attending Tuesday's game, but Matt's father Jesse was there and proud as ever when his son's first-ever playoff goal gave him three points in three post-season games for the surging Sharks. And you can bet Matt's mom was watching as well.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN