Matt Nieto’s tale is straight from Disney.
Mexican American toddler in Southern California falls in love with a plastic hockey stick and a brand new hockey team – one named for a Disney movie. He baffles his parents by spending hours re-enacting what the Mighty Ducks do on television.
Despite no hockey pedigree or family connection, despite being teased by kids in his rough Long Beach neighborhood, despite the lure of 80-degree days at the beach rather than 6 a.m. calls at a hockey rink, the boy grows up to become a skilled hockey player.
Fast forward to Thursday night: Matt Nieto, a 21-year-old rookie, will suit up for the Sharks, playing against his favorite childhood team, the Anaheim Ducks. For first place in the NHL’s Pacific Division.
“Yeah, it’s been really crazy,” said Nieto, flashing the kind of smile Disney heroes always have. “I wasn’t expecting all of this in my first year.”
Nieto is the fruit of the seeds Wayne Gretzky planted in California a quarter century ago. The NHL’s Johnny Appleseed came to the Kings and helped give birth to West Coast teams like the Sharks and the Ducks. What followed was a wave of California children enamored with the sport (the Jeff Friesen stick mounted on the wall in my son’s childhood bedroom is evidence of a California boy’s hockey obsession).
California kids who grow up to be NHL players are still a novelty. But Nieto – who started playing roller hockey while in diapers, moved to ice at age 5 and then played for a highly regarded Los Angeles club – had five club teammates who have been drafted by the NHL.
One, Emerson Etem, has been Nieto’s best friend since they were learning roller hockey and potty training together. He was the Ducks’ first-round draft pick in 2010. Though Etem’s been in the minors, Nieto received a text Thursday.
“I’m playing you tomorrow.”
If Etem is indeed called back up for Thursday’s showdown, well, get Disney on the phone.
The Sharks are less concerned with the fairy-tale nature of Nieto’s story and more interested in its daily application, which has been tremendous. The rookie is one reason that, despite a rash of key injuries and an Olympics-interrupted schedule, the Sharks are battling for first place.
“He’s made a huge impact on our team and organization,” said coach Todd McLellan.
Nieto was drafted by the Sharks in 2011, after his freshman year at Boston University. He had left home at age 14 to attend boarding school and play hockey in Connecticut. After one year at Salisbury School he went on to play for the national team program in Michigan, where he finished high school.
He played three years at BU, before opting to leave early and join the Sharks.
“I thought it was amazing to get a chance to play back in California,” he said. “I’d been away from home for so long.”
During a summer tournament, McLellan noticed Nieto – his speed makes him stand out – and thought, “this kid can play.” But the Sharks had a budding star in rookie Tomas Hertland Nieto was considered a long shot.
“All the attention went to Tomas and I think that helped Matt,” McLellan said. “That gave him some breathing room as a rookie.”
“To be honest, I thought that if I even played a couple of games up here I would be happy,” Nieto said. “I just wanted to make the most of it.”
But because of injuries – particularly the season-ending knee injury to Hertl in mid-December – Nieto got an opportunity.
And he has made the most of it. Instead of “a couple of games” he’s played in 56. He’s scored 10 goals and has 12 assists and has moved up to one of the key lines.
“There was a spot open for any takers and he rose to the occasion,” said Patrick Marleau, who is Nieto’s linemate along with Logan Couture. “His confidence is just getting better and better. He understands the system, which is the biggest thing for a young guy.”
The team captain agrees.
“He’s a very reliable player,” Joe Thornton said. “To be playing on a line with Patty and Logan, to have all that responsibility for a 21-year old is big.”
Nieto is mature beyond his years. Part of that is leaving home at 14. Some of it may also be from learning to deal with family issues and challenges.
Nieto has a sister, Erin, with Down syndrome, who is 14. When he can, Nieto volunteers at the school she attends. Just as Nieto was leaving for training camp in August, he learned that his mother, Mary, had breast cancer. She recently finished chemotherapy.
“It has been hard, especially because I can’t be with her,” Nieto said. “But the Sharks have been great helping me deal with it.”
“He’s very strong,” McLellan said. “Just the way he carries himself.”
–Ann Killion, San Francisco Chronicle
Lew Wolff’s new A’s promotion – “Let Us Stay In Oakland For Another Decade, Please” – will not fall on deaf ears.
In fact, two ears in particular are already perked to their full height and width – those of Raiders owners Mark Davis.
Davis, who has been stumping with conspicuous lack of subtlety about a new stadium of late, can only take the news that Wolff wants a new 10-year lease at the Coliseum as a direct challenge to whatever leverage he thinks he may have over Oakland, or what he considers “The Bay Area.”
That is, as opposed to what he does not consider “The Bay Area” – specifically, the part where the 49ers will be playing in 2014.
So what is Davis to do if he finds out that the A’s and Oakland have come to terms on a new extended lease? Well, one logical thought is that he starts stumping in earnest for a prime place in line when the NFL’s Race To Tinseltown begins.
It is considered a fait accompli by most observers both inside and outside the league that Los Angeles will be a two-team NFL town again, and that one of the two teams will certainly be the Not So Much St. Louis Rams. This means that there will be a full-on charge for the second team from both Oakland and San Diego.
And if Oakland is in a new flirtation with the A’s – which is to say that the A’s have finally understood that their San Jose adventure has all but left without them leaving the driveway – that leaves Davis with nothing to do but play the “I’m leaving” card.
The problem with the “I’m leaving” card is that most people have already deduced that he’s going to try to leave sooner rather than later anyway. He almost has to do so, because the Raiders are wedged between a rock and a wheel of rotating knives.
The Raiders make money – as an NFL team, they can’t NOT make money. But because they are a stand-alone football business, unlike nearly every other NFL team owned by a man who made his billions in other pursuits, they cannot generate income commensurate with the league’s more powerful franchises. Al Davis’ “I Only Care About Football” mantra might have seemed charming in its day, but the rest of the league changed around him into a far more corporate entity in which football is now only one of its subsidiaries.
In addition, the years of losing have rotted the ticket base to the point that future marketing and promotion may be considered the equivalent of throwing worse money after bad.
You might even consider the revivification of the 49ers as a factor, though the Raiders’ issues would have remained serious even if they had become co-tenants in Not The Bay Area Stadium. A sharing arrangement was never in Al’s best interests (as defined by Al), and the 49ers could never have committed to a construction partner who could cut and run for L.A. in the middle of the concrete pour.
In sum, the Raiders, once the fair-haired children of the East Bay political establishment, now find themselves at the thin end of the wormhole, paying for the sins of decades of iconoclasm and willfulness and on-field failure. They’ve been leaning toward Los Angeles for years, and now they may finally feel as though they are also being pushed in that direction.
True, the Oakland politicals could still screw up a lease extension with the A’s. The Oakland politicals could screw up a trip to Costco with a one-item shopping list.
–Ray Ratto, CSNBayArea.com
It’s a gross oversimplification, but winners win and losers lose. This is why, despite the maniacal manner in which the message was delivered, Mike Singletary was making more sense than he’d ever made as the 49ers’ coach during his epic “I want winners!” screed.
It reminds me of a lazy June afternoon during the Ken Macha era in Oakland, shortly after it was announced that one of the players the A’s had recently acquired despite a lengthy injury history had been placed on the disabled list.
“Guys who get hurt a lot — even the great players — are easy to get because they’re cheap,” he told me, still fuming over his lack of input prior to the signing of the player in question. “And why do you think they’re so cheap? THEY GET HURT A LOT! It shouldn’t even be called an injury history. It should be called an injury indicator.”
That same player ended up on the DL four more times during his two years with the A’s, and Macha seethed with each trip.
All of which brings us to the Raiders, who have done very little to earn the benefit of the doubt from even the most optimistic and forgiving fan. Well, times they are a-changin’, and based on the flurry of free-agency action that’s very recently come out of the offices in Alameda, they’re a-changin’ for the better for the first time since … hell, who has that long of a memory?
That the guys they’ve been bringing in are talented is almost beside the point. If you’re in the NFL, you’re talented. But talent and winning are far from synonymous. If they were, Mike Vick wouldn’t be slumming for a gig right now. He’d be polishing his Super Bowl rings.
You know what is synonymous with winning? Forgive me English teachers and anti-redundancy advocates of the world, but winning is synonymous with winning. Just as losing is synonymous with losing.
The running total on the Raiders’ free-agent signings thus far: six Super Bowl rings. If you don’t think that’s going to impact what’s clearly a losing culture, you’ve been watching way too much Duck Dynasty and your brain has turned to possum stew.
Look, this isn’t to say that the Raiders of recent vintage have been loaded with nothing but losers. Charles Woodson, for instance, is a widely respected winner and always will be. Other recent Raiders have had success elsewhere, too. And it wouldn’t be totally unfair to say that based on what we’ve seen from Dennis Allen, all those Super Bowl rings aren’t worth anything more than they’d fetch at Sotheby’s.
Yet the fact remains: winners win. Or at least they tend to win. Especially when you get a bunch of them together and empower them with the opportunity to lead a renaissance.
–Mychael Urban, San Francisco Examiner