Thousands of fans congregated on the arena floor at Nassau Coliseum last June 25, fixated on a video board, watching the live feed from the 2010 NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles. The mood was light and the atmosphere was fun, but everyone was still anxious as the one question on their minds remained: “Who will Islanders General Manager Garth Snow pick?”
Would the Islanders select a forward with quick hands and smart vision or a puck-moving defenseman? Perhaps Snow would trade the pick. The tight-lipped Islanders General Manager never tipped his hand, but the question was quickly answered when he walked to the podium and selected 17-year-old Nino Niederreiter
In an instant, Niederreiter became the highest-drafted Swiss player ever and one of the most Googled names on Long Island. Just over three months later and a few weeks after his 18th birthday, he became the youngest Islanders player ever to make his NHL debut at 18 years and 31 days and to score his first NHL goal at 18 years and 35 days.
“My first NHL goal was amazing,” Niederreiter said. “I will never forget that one. It was just a great play with (Michael) Grabner and Dougie (Weight). Sometimes I watch it on YouTube. It was just a dream.”
The power forward reached that major milestone in just his third game, but understood when the Islanders decided to send him back to his junior club, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, after nine games.
“Playing with the Islanders was a great experience,” Niederreiter said. “It helped me a lot and I experienced what it’s going to be like to play up there one day. I learned what I had to work on to reach my goals. It’s a dream to be in the NHL, but I have to work hard to live that dream. I just put everything I had into this year so that I have a chance to make (the Islanders) next year.”
|Nino Niederreiter #25 of the New York Islanders looks to make a play against the Montreal Canadiens during a NHL game on October 27, 2010 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) |
The Winterhawks welcomed back their leading goal scorer with open arms and in 10 fewer regular season games than the 2009-10 season, Niederreiter surpassed his previous year’s point totals by 10 points, ranking fourth on the team in overall scoring (70 points) and first in goals (41).
Despite his ability to find the back of the net, the Swiss winger wanted to make sure he improved his overall skating, which he felt would give him the extra edge needed to become an everyday player in the NHL.
“My skating was the biggest thing I had to work on,” Niederreiter said. “That’s what I did and that’s what I’m doing right now. I stayed longer in Portland so that I could participate in a power skating camp and I think it’s going to help me a lot for next year.”
That’s not all Niederreiter’s improved during his second season in North America.
“I think I’m also mentally tougher,” Niederreiter said. “It kind of took me a little bit until I got that, but at the end, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it and I think it’s helped me out this year.”
Helping Portland finish the regular season first overall in the WHL Western Conference with 103 points (50-19-0-3 record), “El Nino” took that new found confidence into the 2011 Ed Chynoweth Cup Finals against the Kootenay Ice. The Winterhawks were beaten by the Ice 4-1 in the best-of-seven series for the WHL title. Niederreiter scored 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists) in 21 playoff games.
|Nino Niederreiter, of the Portland Winterhawks, played in a Western Hockey League game against the Kamloops Blazers. |
“It was a great experience and I enjoyed every second,” Niederreiter said. “It was just exciting to make it that far. I think we were pretty close to winning the championship at the end. It’s always very sad (when you lose) and it was tough. We had such an unbelievable team with great skill and big talent. It was hard to lose like that.”
Now that his season is over and has summer workout plans set, Niederreiter can offer a bit of advice to the next young crop of prospects hoping to see their face on the Islanders’ video board at this year’s draft party.
“Enjoy the day and take in as many of the moments as possible,” Niederreiter said. “Build off the excitement and come to mini-camp prepared with the goal of becoming a New York Islander, whether that’s next season or down the road.”