If defenseman Andrew Nielsen makes the Toronto Maple Leafs roster one day and gets to skate alongside Dion Phaneuf, it won't be the first time they'll be co-workers.
Nielsen, the Maple Leafs' third-round pick (No. 65) at the 2015 NHL Draft, was the waterboy for the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League from 2003-05. Phaneuf was a top defenseman for Red Deer at the time.
"It was pretty cool to idolize him, watch what he did best and see him grow as a person," Nielsen told the Toronto Sun during Maple Leafs prospect camp this week. "I tried to take in as much as I could from him.
"He hasn't called me yet, but the trainer I work out with still keeps in contact with him and texted congratulations. I'd go to Flames games in Calgary when I was younger, where he'd give a puck or whatever. I've not talked to him for a long time, but I'm sure we'll hook up at training camp."
Nielsen began working for the Rebels when he was 6 years old. He followed Phaneuf through his days with the Calgary Flames (he was their first-round pick in 2003) and was upset when Phaneuf was traded to Toronto in 2010.
"It's not that I hated the Leafs, I just wasn't a fan at the time (of the trade)," Nielsen said. "I have a Leafs' Phaneuf jersey in my room and a Calgary one that's sort of off to the side. I still have lots of Flames stuff, but I'm a die-hard Leafs fan now."
Nielsen, 18, is entering his second season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the WHL. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound defenseman had seven goals, 17 assists and 101 penalty minutes in 59 games last season. The Maple Leafs were pleased when Nielsen was on the board early in the third round.
"I didn't see him play last year, but I know (co-interim generl manager) Mark Hunter and (Western Canadian scout) Garth Malarchuk were huge fans," Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas said. "He's a tough kid, but also a big defender and has a good offensive upside as well. Those are the types of players we can just make strong and improve their mobility. He has a really good chance (to make the NHL)."
Much like Phaneuf, Nielsen said he believes he can be someone Toronto can trust in the future to play against the opposition's best forwards.
"I might consider myself a really solid two-way defender, someone you could put out there in the last minute of a game if you have to stop the top line," Nielsen said. "Someone that doesn't make mistakes very often, When I do, I recover very well. I make a good first pass and break down the forecheck with it. My ability is to get back to pucks early and quarterback play in the offensive zone, whether it's walking the blue line, getting a shot off or making plays down there. And [quarterback] the power play. I like to think I can do it all. But obviously, there are lots of areas I have to work on."