Athletes overcome adversity in the game throughout any season, whether it be through injury or through a rough patch of the schedule.
But goaltender Chris Nell overcame arguably the biggest adversity any player - or person for that matter - could have to cope with: the loss of his father, Rick, prior to the start of his final season at Bowling Green State University.
"For the first half it was trying to find that new normal," Nell told NYRangers.com. "He was a big part of my life. He was there for every game. I put a lot of pressure on myself to play for him. I think I did it in a way that I had to have 40 shutouts in the first half [of the season] when there's only 20 games."
Understandably, Nell got off to a difficult start with the Falcons, going 0-4-1 out of the gate before rounding out his game in November. By the Christmas break, Nell was 6-7-2 and heating up.
"I think I put too much pressure on myself," Nell said. "I didn't really let myself just play. I think once Christmas break came I was able to go home and take some time off from hockey and school and be with my family."
After continuing to find his game in January, by February Nell was up to top form for Bowling Green. After losing his first two games of the month, Nell would end his season on a 7-1-0 run with a 1.26 GAA and a .957 SV% and three shutouts, all of which came in a row from Feb. 11 through Feb. 25.
That week earned Nell the NCAA's First Star of the Week and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Defensive Player of the Week.
And it certainly helped to land Nell an entry-level contract with the New York Rangers, which he signed last week.
"It's surreal," Nell said of joining the Rangers. "Obviously to be able to sign a contract with an Original Six team and just the history behind the Rangers and just see that dream start to form. It's been surreal."
Steve Greeley, the Rangers' Assistant Director, Player Personnel, said Nell's final two months of the season could be put up against any goaltender in the country.
"His second half was as good as any goalie in college hockey," he said. "He really peaked and he was a goal away from bringing Bowling Green into the NCAA tournament, which would have been quite a feat."
Greeley said Nell's biggest attribute is his athleticism, and with that, he offers his team a chance to win on a nightly basis, even if they don't bring their best.
"He's never out of it," Greeley added. "If there's a bad bounce, the kid is never out of it. I think that's one of the things we liked. There's a lot of upside to this goalie."
Nell, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 190 pounds, agreed with Greeley's assessment, and added that athleticism it allows him to stay in position and makes tough saves all the easier.
"I think [athleticism is] one part and the other is making sure I'm in the right spot and use that athleticism in a more simplified way to make sure I'm not having to scramble as much and making sure I'm in the right spot at the right time."
Greeley sees that athleticism as an advantage for Nell down the road when he begins working with Rangers Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire.
"It's something that allows him to develop, so when Benoit Allaire starts working with him - and he's had some great goalie coaches in the past - but when Benny gets his hands on him and he's working with an athlete, I think you're able to accomplish more in your development," Greeley stated. "This kid is very technically sound and is a good goalie, but because he's an athlete, we think he's going to be able to grow this foundation."
Nell, who is from Green Bay, Wisc., said he's excited at the prospect of working with Allaire, who has helped mold Henrik Lundqvist into the star he is, and has also been credited by former Ranger Cam Talbot for helping him become a starter in Edmonton.
"It's an exciting time to meet him and get his opinion on where your game is at and what you can improve on," he said. "Just to see the guys he's worked with and how he fine-tuned their games as professionals, it's an exciting time to work with him and hopefully turn my game into something like that."
Greeley said the way Nell - who will report to Hartford of the American Hockey League this week - overcame his loss early in the year and still turned in the season he did speaks volumes about Nell's character and his competitiveness on the ice.
For Nell, the loss of his father is one he continues to cope with, but said he now realizes that his father is still with him night after night.
"He's still there watching," Nell said, "and with better seats now."
Photos courtesy of BGSU Athletic Communications