Andrew Nielsen wasn’t considering a possible hockey career two years ago. The Lethbridge Hurricanes rookie defenceman was in a situation where the game was more or less a pastime to him. He wasn’t even playing in Alberta’s top midget league, let alone the Western Hockey League.
“The NHL definitely wasn’t in the picture back then,” says Nielsen, who turned 18 in November. “When you’re playing ‘AA’ midget, you think this probably isn’t going to work out – time to look at other options for a career.”
Nielsen’s fortunate started to shift the following season in 2013-14. He turned heads as a big-bodied rearguard for the Red Deer ‘AAA’ midget Chiefs and was subsequently listed and signed by the Hurricanes. Following earning a roster spot with Lethbridge this year, he started to garner attention from NHL scouts largely because of the combination of his imposing 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and quality offensive abilities such as a good first pass and a strong slap shot.
“When I came here (to Lethbridge) I was just trying to make the team,” says Nielsen, whom NHL Central Scouting Service pegged as the 69th best North American skater in its midterm ranking. “I didn’t know that everything would have worked out as is it has. I’ve just kept working hard and have been trying to improve all the time."
From needing to improve his skating to possibly being overlooked at times, the Red Deer, Alta., native credits a handful of different reasons for why it took him until his third year of eligibility to crack the Dub.
“I think I was overlooked sometimes, but I also think I’m a late-bloomer,” he says. “I see myself as a late-bloomer. It took me a bit longer than some guys. I had some skating issues because my stride is a bit different and it makes me look a bit slow. I also never took my fitness training as seriously as I should have – that held me back and affected my skating. But now I train harder and am taking that seriously.”
Despite his lack of experience, Nielsen has quickly asserted himself as one of the rebuilding Hurricanes’ top blueliners. He has been a physical force in his own end while contributing in the offensive zone.
“They’ve given me a good opportunity here,” says Nielsen, who has notched seven goals and 21 points in 53 games while racking up 101 penalty minutes. “I’m also surrounded by a lot of good people. (Assistant coach) Brian Maxwell has helped me out a lot. He’s had success as a defenceman and has shown me what it takes to play in this league. And playing with Nick Walters in the first half of the season really helped me out. He’s played over 300 games and I’ve been able to learn a lot from him.”
The left-handed freshman has the makings of a feel-good story as a kid who bounced around a minor hockey system before getting his shot in the WHL and eventually the pros. But it’s one thing to receive interest from scouts, and another thing for an NHL team to invest a draft pick and a contract into a player. This isn’t news to Nielsen. He knows it’s a long way to the top in the hockey world.
“I know this is just the start,” he says. “I have to keep on working and improving my game. Getting noticed is great, but I need to continue to work hard and get better.”
1. What type of player are you trying to develop into in Lethbridge?
“I want to be a player that is counted on in all situations. In the defensive zone, I want to play a big role, but I want my role to be bigger than that. I want to play a shutdown role and be the guy that quarterbacks a power play. I want to be on the ice in the last minute whether we are up a goal or down a goal.”
2. Is there an NHL player that you try to model parts of your game after?
“I like how (St. Louis Blues defender) Jay Bouwmeester plays. He’s an excellent skater and controls the game. I think he’s a good defenceman to look up to and learn from.”
3. Do you have a favourite NHL team?
“The (Calgary) Flames. I like them because they are close to where I grew up, but also because of Dion Phaneuf. I was the water boy for the Red Deer Rebels from when I was six to 14. I got to know Dion then and thought he was a really nice guy and looked up to him. I started cheering for the Flames when he was there, but never switched over to Toronto because I don’t like the Leafs.”
4. What arena in the WHL do you look forward to playing in on the road?
“I like playing in Kamloops (against the Blazers at the Interior Savings Centre) and in Portland (against the Winterhawks at the Rose Garden). I’ve had some good games in Kamloops and Portland has an unbelievable atmosphere – best in the league.”
5. If you weren’t entrenched in hockey, what other sport do you feel you would purse?
“Probably baseball. I always liked playing it and still follow it. I’m a big (Toronto Blue) Jays fan.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen