Color of Hockey: Hispanic Heritage Month resonates with Nieto

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Matt nieto realized the possibilities of a career in the NHL after seeing what Scott Gomez has accomplished.

Nieto, a Mexican-American kid who grew up in Southern California, beamed with pride when Gomez, a striker of Mexican-Colombian descent, lifted the Stanley Cup on TV after his New Jersey Devils beat the Dallas stars in six games in the 2000 Cup Final.

“He was someone you were watching,” said Nieto, the San Jose Sharks forward entering his 10th NHL season. “He’s a great player and he’s Hispanic and you’re like, ‘Wow he did it, he’s living the dream of playing in the NHL.’ And that makes you think it’s possible. “

Nieto said he’s now living the dream heading into his second season on his second tour with the Sharks, who selected him in the second round (47th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft.

He scored 158 points (67 goals, 91 assists) in 500 regular season games with the Sharks and Colorado Avalanche and 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 55 Stanley Cup playoff games.

The 28-year-old’s hockey journey has not followed the typical path of most NHL players. He was born to working-class parents in Long Beach, California.

Mary Nieto said she and her husband, Jesse, had initially “lived in a really bad neighborhood” east of town, where drive-by shootings were not uncommon.

“Matt jokes about it, that Snoop Dogg lived around the corner,” she said. “True, but Matt wasn’t born then.”

Although most Californian children are drawn to soccer, baseball, or basketball, Nieto became fascinated with hockey after his grandfather gave him a plastic stick from a 99-cent store in the United States. age 3.

“He bought me a stick because I was really into roller skating,” said Nieto. “I wasn’t taking them off. I was just doing the roller skating thing and he just took a random stick from me for some reason and that’s all it took.”

Nieto’s passion for the game grew after watching the “The Mighty Ducks” movies, featuring gamers of color. He became obsessed with roller hockey and a fan of the Anaheim Ducks.

“I wouldn’t miss a Ducks game,” he said. “I always had my stick and my skates, replicating what happened during games.”

Nieto started playing organized roller hockey at a local YMCA, where he first met Emerson Etem, who quickly became a best friend.

The two moved on from roller hockey to ice hockey and then became part of a squad of elite Southern California players drafted by NHL teams.

“We had four NHL players on my first peewee team – myself, Beau Bennett, Jason zucker and Matt, ”Etem said.

The Ducks selected forward Etem with the No. 29 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. He scored 46 points (22 goals, 24 assists) in 173 games with Anaheim, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks before retiring in 2019. He is now the owner / coach of Long Beach of the Premier Hockey League the United States.

The Pittsburgh Penguins selected Bennett, a forward, with the No. 20 pick in the 2010 draft. He scored 64 points (24 goals, 40 assists) in 200 games for the Penguins, with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 2016, the New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues before retiring in June.

Zucker, a forward, was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the second round (59th) in the 2010 draft. He scored 273 points (147 goals, 126 assists) in 509 games with the 2011-21 Wild and Penguins. .

“I attribute a lot of my success to them, just the way we were able to come together, push each other,” Nieto said. “We were all good friends, but when we got on the ice we wanted to participate, and we wanted to be the best and it worked for all of us. “

Nieto also hits his parents with a stick to financially enable him to play elite level hockey. Mary Nieto worked as a makeup artist at a local Nordstrom’s. Jesse was a tank top.

Money was so tight that Nieto’s parents made him choose between rollerblading and ice hockey because they couldn’t afford to have him play every sport.

“I remember asking them who made more money, professional ice hockey players or professional roller hockey players?” said Nieto. “They said, ‘The ice hockey players.’ That’s why I chose ice hockey. “

At 14, Nieto headed east to study and play hockey at Salisbury School in Salisbury, Connecticut. He played two seasons for the United States National Hockey Team Development Program and helped the United States win the IIHF World Junior Under-18 Championship in 2008-09 and 2009- 10.

Nieto earned a scholarship to Boston University, where he scored 102 points (44 goals, 58 assists) in 115 games in three seasons. He led BU in goals (18) and was second in points (37) in 2012-13.

Despite his success, Nieto said he suffered some racism as he rose through the hockey ranks, but not as much as other players of color.

“Even though I’m Mexican, I look white,” he said. “But it was definitely there. I remember the times when I was playing in college, I got some of that verbal abuse from fans and so forth, from students at other schools.

“I’ve always been someone who was able to dust my shoulders off and not think about it a lot. But it’s definitely something out of place in the game.”

He became the first California-born player drafted by the Sharks and played four seasons with them from 2013 to 2017. He was claimed on waivers by the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 5, 2017.

He returned to San Jose as a free agent on October 13, 2020 and signed a two-year contract with the Sharks on June 21.

In addition to winning the Stanley Cup one day, Nieto hopes his presence in the NHL will inspire young Hispanic players in the same way Gomez’s career has inspired him.

Gomez scored 756 points (181 goals, 575 assists) in 1,079 NHL games with seven teams, including eight with the Devils, and won the Cup again with New Jersey in 2003.

“You see a lot more Hispanic players, guys like me (Toronto Maple Leafs center) Auston matthews and (defenseman of the Vegas Golden Knights) Alec martinez which only pave the way, ”Nieto said. “If I could help even one player, (show) that it’s possible by looking at me, where I’m from, my ethnicity. I am very proud of it. “

Pictures: Mary Nieto, Emerson Etem, Boston University Athletics


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