Color of Hockey: Hispanic Heritage Month resonates with Nieto

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, as part of the NHL’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, he profiles San Jose Sharks forward Matt Nieto.

Matt Nieto realized the possibilities of an NHL career after seeing what Scott Gomez accomplished.

Nieto, a Mexican-American kid growing up in Southern California, beamed with pride when Gomez, a forward of Mexican-Colombian descent, hoisted the Stanley Cup on TV after his New Jersey Devils defeated the Dallas Stars in six games in the 2000 Cup Final.

“He was someone you watched,” said Nieto, the San Jose Sharks forward entering his 10th NHL season. “He’s a great player and he’s Hispanic and you’re telling yourself, ‘Wow, he made it, he’s living the dream playing in the NHL.’ And it makes it click in your mind that it’s possible.”

Nieto said he’s now living the dream heading into his second season on his second tour with the Sharks, who chose him in the second round (No. 47) of the 2011 NHL Draft.

He has scored 158 points (67 goals, 91 assists) in 500 regular-season games with the Sharks and Colorado Avalanche and 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 55 Stanley Cup Playoffs contests.

The 28-year-old’s hockey journey has not followed the typical path of most NHL players. He was born to working-class parents in Long Beach, California.

Mary Nieto said she and her husband, Jesse, initially “lived in a really bad neighborhood” on the city’s east side, where drive-by shootings weren’t uncommon.

“Matt jokes about it, that Snoop Dogg lived around the corner,” she said. “It’s true, but Matt wasn’t born then.”

Though most California kids gravitate to football, baseball or basketball, Nieto became fascinated by hockey after his grandfather gave him a plastic stick from a 99-cent store when he was 3 years old.

“He got me a stick because I was really into Rollerblading,” Nieto said. “I used to not take them off. I was just doing the Rollerblading thing and he just randomly got me a stick for some reason and that’s all it took.”

Nieto’s passion for the game increased after watching “The Mighty Ducks” movies, which featured players of color. He became obsessed with roller hockey and a fan of the Anaheim Ducks.

“I wouldn’t miss a Ducks game,” he said. “I always had my stick and skates on, re-enacting what went on during games.”

Nieto began playing organized roller hockey at a local YMCA, where he first met Emerson Etem, who quickly became a best friend.

The two transitioned from roller hockey to ice hockey and later became part of a group of elite Southern California players drafted by NHL teams.

“We had four NHLers on my first peewee team — myself, Beau Bennett, Jason Zucker and Matt,” Etem said.

The Ducks chose Etem, a forward, with the No. 29 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. He scored 46 points (22 goals, 24 assists) in 173 games with Anaheim, the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks before retiring in 2019. He’s now the owner/coach of Long Beach of the United States Premier Hockey League.

The Pittsburgh Penguins selected Bennett, a forward, with the No. 20 pick in the 2010 draft. He scored 64 points (24 goals, 40 assists) in 200 games with the Penguins, with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 2016, New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues before he retired in June.

Zucker, a forward, was chosen by the Minnesota Wild in the second round (No. 59) in the 2010 draft. He has scored 273 points (147 goals, 126 assists) in 509 games with the Wild and Penguins from 2011-21.

“I credit them for a lot of my success just the way that we were able to come together, push each other,” Nieto said. “We were all good friends, but when we got on the ice, we wanted to compete, and we wanted to be the best and it worked out for all of us.”

Nieto also gives stick taps to his parents for making it financially possible for him to play elite level hockey. Mary Nieto worked as a makeup artist at a local Nordstrom’s. Jesse was a longshoreman.

Money was so tight, Nieto’s parents had him choose between playing roller and ice hockey because they couldn’t afford to have him play each sport.

“I remember asking them who made more money, professional ice hockey players or professional roller hockey players?” Nieto said. “They said, ‘Ice hockey players.’ That’s why I chose ice hockey.”

At 14, Nieto headed east to study and play hockey at the Salisbury School in Salisbury, Connecticut. He played two seasons for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and helped the U.S. win the IIHF Under-18 World Junior Championship in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

Nieto earned a scholarship to Boston University, where he scored 102 points (44 goals, 58 assists) in 115 games over three seasons. He led BU in goals (18) and was second in points (37) in 2012-13.

Despite his success, Nieto said he experienced some racism climbing the hockey ladder, but not as much as other players of color.

“Even though I’m Mexican, I look white,” he said. “But it was definitely present. I remember times when I was playing in college, I was getting some of this verbal abuse from fans and whatnot, students from other schools.

“I was always someone that was able to dust it off the shoulders and not think much of it. But it’s definitely something that doesn’t belong in the game.”

He became the first California-born player drafted by the Sharks and played four seasons with them from 2013-17. He was claimed on waivers by the Colorado Avalanche on January 5, 2017.

He returned to San Jose as a free agent on October 13, 2020, and signed a two-year contract with the Sharks on June 21.

Beside winning the Stanley Cup someday, Nieto hopes his presence in the NHL inspires young Hispanic players the same way Gomez’s career inspired him.

Gomez scored 756 points (181 goals, 575 assists) in 1,079 NHL games with seven teams, including eight with the Devils, and won the Cup again with New Jersey in 2003.

“You’re seeing a lot more Hispanic players, guys like myself, (Toronto Maple Leafs center) Auston Matthews and (Vegas Golden Knights defenseman) Alec Martinez that are just sort of paving the way,” Nieto said. “If I could help even just one player, (show) that it’s possible from looking at me, where I came from, my ethnicity. I take a lot of pride in that.” Source