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Development Camp Update: Matthew Nieto

by Alison High / San Jose Sharks

Sharks prospect Matthew Nieto with Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

There’s no way Matthew Nieto’s grandfather could have known it at the time. But when he gave his two-year-old grandson a plastic hockey stick, he jump started his career.

The year was 1994 and Disney had just released “D2: The Mighty Ducks” as a sequel to their wildly popular “The Mighty Ducks” from two years prior. Nieto loved the movies. And once he got the stick, he would re-enact everything he saw on the screen.

18-year-old Nieto poses for a photo portrait during day two of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center on June 25, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Then he started to follow a new National Hockey League franchise that had been founded just 30 minutes from his Long Beach home. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (as they were known then) had just finished their inaugural season when Nieto received his first hockey stick. He became obsessed with watching the Mighty Ducks and trying to imitate what he saw on television.

“I used to watch the games for hours,” said Nieto, who’s attending the Sharks Development Camp. “My parents saw that I was into it, so they signed me up for roller hockey at the YMCA.”

Fast forward two years from the time he started at the YMCA and you’ll find Nieto making the transition from roller blades to ice skates. Fast forward another 13 – to June 25 of this year – and you’ll find Nieto’s name at the top of the Sharks 2011 NHL Entry Draft class as the 47th overall pick.

It was only three weeks ago that the 18-year-old was drafted by the Sharks organization. Now, he’s attending Development Camp as one of the youngest players in the 38-man group.

“It’s a relief knowing a team has my rights now,” Nieto said. “I couldn’t be happier being here. I’m having fun so far and I’m looking forward to working with the organization.”

As a youngster, Nieto’s goal wasn’t always to make it to the NHL. While he was growing up in Long Beach, he set his sights on making the U.S. National Team. However, with the average yearly temperature registering at 68 degrees, his hometown had more naval bases than hockey rinks. In order for Nieto to accomplish his dream, he had to leave home.

So at the age of 14, Nieto moved away from Long Beach to attend Salisbury School – a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut – and focus on hockey.

“It was difficult for me and my parents for me to be away at such a young age,” Nieto said. “But I thought it was better for my development and to get exposure. I ended up making the National Team so I was happy with the decision.”

Nieto is greeted by Sharks Director of Scouting Tim Burke as General Manager Doug Wilson looks on from the draft floor. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
After one year at Salisbury, he was invited to the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan. In 2008, he was one of the leading scorers of the Under-17 team and the following year, he was the youngest member to make the World Championship team. Nieto won back-to-back gold medals with Team USA at the Under-18 World Championship (2009 and 2010) and will participate in the evaluation camp for the 2011 World Junior Championships.

That put him on the Sharks radar.

In 2010, Nieto headed to Massachusetts for his freshman season at Boston University. He recorded 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 36 games. Just a few months after his first year ended, Nieto traveled to the Xcel Energy Center and watched as the Sharks traded their 59th overall pick and a third round pick in 2012 to the Florida Panthers to move into the 47th position and draft him.

“More and more kids from California are getting this opportunity,” Nieto said. “I think it’s good for kids to look at us as examples and think, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”

Sharks Development Camp is just part of a busy summer for Nieto. Next month, he’ll be participating in USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp. He’ll be competing for a spot on America’s World Junior Championship team. If all goes well, Nieto will be trying to help the USA win the WJC.

Just like every good movie, there’s an element at the end of this story that begs for a sequel. During our interview, Nieto divulged that his father has decided to pass down a 1964 Cadillac to him – complete with suicide doors and hydraulics. There’s one catch.

“I don’t have my license,” Nieto said. “I’m working on it this summer. Once I have that, I’ll be able to drive that thing around.

If Nieto made a hockey career out of a plastic hockey stick, imagine what he’ll do with this low-riding classic.
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