Matt Nieto was like most California kids who started playing hockey in the 1990s. He started playing roller hockey at the local YMCA when he was three years old. Two of Nieto’s roller hockey mates were Anaheim’s Emerson Etem (29th overall pick in 2010) and Rocco Grimaldi (33rd overall by Florida this year).
And like most California kids wanting to play in the National Hockey League, the forward, who was showing promise in minor hockey, went east at 14 to further develop his game.
After winning two gold medals for Team U.S.A. at the Under-18 World Championships and a year at Boston University, Nieto now has a chance to play professional hockey in California – Northern, that is – after the San Jose Sharks made him their first pick, the 47th overall, in the 2011 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
“I was away from home at such a young age,” Nieto said. “Leaving home and my family at that age is not very easy.”
But now, the Long Beach native has a chance that every young hockey player would want.
“I couldn’t be any happier right now,” Nieto said.
The same can be said for Nieto’s parents, Jesse and Mary, who were with Nieto at the draft. “I’ve got a chance to try and pursue a career in my home state of California,” he said, “They’re really happy.”
Like a lot of California kids who started playing hockey in the 1990s, Nieto was inspired by the Disney movie, “The Mighty Ducks,” which was released early in that decade.
“That definitely got me started,” Nieto said. “My grandfather got me a stick at age 2. I used to watch the Mighty Ducks movies and re-enact what was happening with the stick. It was definitely an inspiration for me.”
Nieto played four years of youth hockey with the L.A. Hockey Club program. He then went east and attended the Connecticut’s Salisbury School before going to the U.S. National Team Development Program. Even though he was coming from a state more known for producing athletes in other sports, Nieto had no problems integrating with kids from the East Coast and Midwest.
“I got a lot of compliments because I’m from California,” Nieto said. “They asked me if I saw a bunch of movie stars and stuff like that. I’d have to say they’re pretty jealous for the most part.”
According to Nieto, youth hockey players from hockey hotbeds such as Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota should be envious of kids coming from California. He feels that youth hockey in the Golden State is getting better each day.
“It’s definitely on the rise,” Nieto said. “More and more kids are playing hockey. They have all the tools (coaching) for them there. I’m looking for a bright future for the kids from California.”
“It’s a great reflection on the work some of the youth programs are doing,” Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson said about selecting a player from California. “It is something to be proud of.”
As for Nieto’s future, he’s going to stay at BU as he continues to develop his game. As a freshman, Nieto had eight goals and 21 points in 36 games.
“One of my assets is my speed,” Nieto said. “I play my best when I use it in all situations. I’m definitely an offensive player, but I’m reliable on my end and like to consider myself as a good two-way player as well.”
“He has real good speed and offensive ability on the rush,” Director of Scouting Tim Burke said. “He’s shown he could do other roles on a team. He’s a good penalty killer. We think his offensive numbers aren’t bad for a first-year guy. We expect him to have a real good year next year and hopefully make the World Junior team (he was in Team U.S.A.’s World Junior evaluation camp).”
The Sharks were able to get Nieto by getting the 47th overall pick (second round) this year from Florida in exchange for San Jose’s second round (59th overall) choice this year and their third round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
“We thought he was in that range,” Burke said. “Where we were sitting, we probably would’ve missed him. We didn’t think we’d get him early in the round because it was too high of a price to pay.”
And while Nieto works on his game at BU and in the World Junior evaluation camp, he’ll need to forget quickly that his favorite NHL team is the Los Angeles Kings.
“San Jose is my new favorite team now,” Nieto said with a smile. “I’m putting my Kings days in back of me.”