A version of the following story appeared in the 2016-17 fourth edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
Matt Nieto still remembers the first time he skated on ice. The result wasn't pretty.
The Colorado Avalanche forward was 5 years old at the time and had been playing roller hockey for the past two years but wanted to make the jump to the ice like the pros on the Anaheim Ducks were doing.
He was quickly reminded that skating is not as easy as it seems.
"The first time I ever went ice skating, I was waiting for the Zamboni to get off the ice and one of my friends dared me to go out there while the Zamboni was still out there," Nieto recalled. "I had never been on the ice before, but I was like, 'how hard could it be?' So I stepped out there and literally my first step I slipped and fell straight on my back. I didn't want to go ice skating again for a while, but then my parents kind of forced me to a few weeks later and all things went well that time, so I loved it."
It's a good thing that his family kept pushing him to give skating a try as the left wing has been able to make a career out of it.
Not bad for a kid from Long Beach, California.
Nieto grew up in the post-Wayne Gretzky era in Southern California, where hockey had become an established sport and kids played in organized leagues like they would for baseball, basketball and football. Some of those young players have grown up to play professionally, and Nieto is one of them.
"It was different," he noted of playing hockey in a predominantly warm weather climate. "I started with roller hockey and then I went over to ice hockey and was fortunate enough to play with some good players; players that have made it to the NHL level."
His love for the sport started at the age of 3 when he received a mini hockey stick from his grandpa, and he has been involved in the game ever since.
"I used to play with that stick 24/7," Nieto said. "I used to watch Ducks games and would reenact what was happening on the screen with my stick. I would wear my skates and sleep with my skates. That is really how I got into it."
After two years of sticking to wheels and playing at the local YMCA, he made the jump to blades and ice rinks and never looked back.
After surviving that traumatic first experience of falling on the ice, of course.
"I guess just roller hockey was easier. I had never skated on ice before at that point," Nieto said. "Once I stepped on the ice, I didn't want to go back to roller."
Playing with that mini stick for countless of hours around the house was when he knew he wanted to be a hockey player when he grew up, but it wasn't until Nieto was 12 and playing for his local club did he actually think he could possibly make a career out of it.
"When I kind of thought that it maybe could become a reality was probably at the peewee level when our team was fortunate enough to go to nationals for the first time," Nieto said. "We were beating everyone pretty easy and made it all the way to the finals. That was probably the first time where I was like, 'this could happen.'"
While hockey had grown as a sport in California, Nieto and his family thought it would be a good idea for him to go out east and play at a prep school in Connecticut to get more exposure from scouts and those in the hockey community. So at the age of 14, he packed up and headed to the Salisbury School on a scholarship.
"It was really hard. I was only 14 years old when I made the move, so it wasn't easy at first," the now 24-year-old said. "Definitely missed being home and missed my family, but I knew in the long run that it would pay off. After that first year in prep school, I reached my goal of making the national team and played there for two years. I thought it was a pretty good move."
Nieto joined the United States National Team Development Program in 2008 and helped the U.S. to back-to-back gold medals at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship.
The next decision that Nieto had to make was whether he would take the major-junior route or play college hockey. While he had an offer to play in the Western Hockey League, he ultimately chose to play at Boston University.
Looking back at it now, it was a decision that he is glad that he made.
"I was still thinking about going the junior route, but I just think that college is something that everyone should take part in if they have a chance," Nieto said. "It's a cool experience. College hockey games are so much different then pro games or junior games. You have the band there, the student section is chanting. It was just really cool."
He was NHL Draft eligible after his freshman season with the Terriers in 2011, and it just so happened that he was picked by a California team. The San Jose Sharks used their first pick of the draft (47th overall) on Nieto, making him the first California-born player to be selected by the franchise.
"That was a very exciting moment," he said. "At the time, your emotions are all over the place, but once I was able to get back to my hotel that day, everything kind of settled down and it all kind of hit me at once. To go to a California team was nice because I had lived away from home since I was 14. To get a chance to play in California was definitely special to me."
Nieto spent two more years at BU before signing his entry-level contract with San Jose and achieving his dream of becoming a professional hockey player.
He made his NHL debut on Oct. 3, 2013 and went on to play 221 games over the course of three-plus seasons with the Sharks, recording 70 points (28 goals and 42 assists). But with the Sharks facing a roster restriction earlier this year, Nieto was placed on waivers.
The Avalanche quickly picked up the 5-foot-11, 190-pound player on Jan. 5, and he made his debut with his new club the following day against the New York Islanders at Pepsi Center.
The toughest part about being put on waivers for Nieto was not knowing what the immediate future held.
"That 24 hours after you get put on waivers, it's a long 24 hours," Nieto said. "You're just sitting there, wondering. You're going through a whole bunch of different possibilities in your head of what might happen.
"I was really happy when I got a call that I would be coming here. I looked at the roster and there are a bunch of players that are really special and talented that I thought it would be cool to play with. Once I got here, everyone was super nice and I felt welcomed."
He scored four goals in his first 11 games with the Avs, giving the team a boost with its lineup.
"He plays with a lot of energy," said head coach Jared Bednar earlier this past season. "He plays with pace. He can really skate, and we need a little bit of all that in our lineup. He's a good penalty killer as well. He brings a lot of things that we need, which is why we picked up him up."
The transition to a new club went smoothly for Nieto, and he's looking to continue to make an impact with the Avalanche.
"All the guys are really good guys and real welcoming," Nieto said of his teammates. "So that part has been awesome. On the ice, it's just about showing up every day and giving it your all and trying to do the best you can."