His father, Frits Nielsen, will be in the stands watching at First Niagara Center, though the senior Nielsen is pretty sure number 500 has already come and gone for his son.
“I had thought his 500th game was against the Rangers at home,” Frits Nielsen said. “I was very surprised when I asked and they said they don’t count playoff games over here.”
So for perhaps a second time, Frits will get to see his son play his 500th regular season contest. Whether it’s 500 or 506, it’s a lofty accomplishment for the Islanders center and one that makes the entire Nielsen family proud.
“I didn’t really know what he was going into when he started,” Frits said. “And over the last six, seven years, I’ve seen how much he’s worked for it and how hard it is to reach it. So it’s a big goal and he’s reached it at 500 games.”
For Frans, being the first Danish player to reach 500 games signifies a hockey life well-lived and a childhood dream come true.
“Time just flies by, but I guess it means you’re having fun if it goes fast,” Nielsen said. “You have to be lucky too with injuries, but it’s definitely something I’m proud of. It’s been a childhood dream and I get to live my dream every day. It’s still fun, still an honor to put that sweater over your head and step on the ice in this league. Hopefully I have a lot more to come.”
Nielsen’s first NHL game was nine seasons ago, on Jan. 6, 2007 in Carolina. The memories are a blur, but the emotions remain vivid. He can still feel the nerves during warmups, the anticipation of waiting on the bench for his name to be called for the first time.
“My first two years I was playing fourth line mostly and the object was not to get scored on, not make any mistakes, or be a liability to the team,” Nielsen said. “I’m still trying to get better, both offensively and defensively, but I’m proud of my overall game. “
Now, 499 games later, those nerves are replaced by excitement, while the fear of being a liability is replaced by a sense of responsibility. As the Islanders top two-way center, Nielsen wants to be out on the ice against the toughest competition.
He said it took him some time to figure out the offensive side of the game, but the scoring touch came around for the 30-year-old center last season. Nielsen scored a career-high 25 goals and 58 points in 2013-14 and has 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) this season.
Then there are the goals that don’t officially count; his shootout tallies. He actually scored his first shootout goal before finding the back of the net in regulation. Nielsen is 38/68 lifetime in shootout attempts; his 55.9% success rate is the highest among active players with at least 25 attempts. As a two-way forward and shootout ace, he’s carved out a good niche for himself on Long Island.
“You can put him out in any situation and he’s going to find a way to contribute,” Josh Bailey said. “I’ve played around him a long time and he always makes the guys around him better players. He’s always so responsible defensively and yet always seems to make the right play. Offensively he’s very creative. He’s just an all-around great player in any situation.”
Playing 500 games is a major milestone for any player – he’s the 24th Islander to hit the half-millennial mark – but there’s something special about playing all of them with one team. It represents loyalty from both the player and management, two parties that think highly of one another. He also has the respect of his teammates.
“It’s no shock a guy like him stays in the organization as long as he has,” Bailey said. “He’s the type of player that any team or organization would be lucky to have. What he resembles as a player and a person is the guy you always want as a teammate and a guy you always cheer for. He always looks out for his teammates before himself and that’s why he’s a big leader on our team.”
Nielsen is the longest-tenured Islander – only Lubomir Visnovsky and Eric Boulton have more NHL games – and was here for the entire rebuild. He admits that there were some tough seasons, but chose to sign a four-year extension in the 2011-12 season to see things through.
“We had some rough years, but I always believed in what [General Manager] Garth [Snow] is trying to do here,” Nielsen said. “We always had the right core that can make this team a really good team and now we’ve just added the right pieces to it. Now we are where we belong and we should fight for home ice in the playoffs, that’s our goal.”
Nielsen said the 2013 playoffs stand out as one of the best memories of his time on Long Island and recapturing that feeling is a big motivation to finish the year strong.
Even as a grizzled vet, Nielsen said he still gets nerves before games, but the good kind; the ones from playing in big games on a nightly basis, as the Islanders have this season.
Sunday will be one of those big games. Frits will be in the stands and Frans will step onto the ice in orange and blue for the 500th time.
Or the 506th time, but who’s counting.