This past summer, Cristoval Nieves was a viral hit on YouTube. Next summer, the Kent School star could be a top NHL draft pick headed to Michigan.
by Justin Churchill/Correspondent
Cristoval “Boo” Nieves streaks up center ice, receives a pass from his teammate at the point and is immediately confronted by two Russian defenders. With nowhere to go, “Boo” amazingly drags the puck between the pair and tucks the puck past the goaltender on his backhand.
The goal not only helps the U.S. Under-18 team beat Russia, 5-4, in overtime this summer at the prestigious Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Piestany, Slovakia, but it also makes Nieves something of an Internet sensation.
“It was pretty cool to see my goal on YouTube,” Nieves said. “I didn’t think it would end up on the Internet, let alone get so many views.”
A clip of the electrifying goal already has garnered more than 8,000 views on YouTube.
It’s not the first time the 17-year-old has turned heads on the ice, and it’s likely not the last.
The 6-foot-3 forward begins his senior season at the Kent School in Connecticut as one of the nation’s top NHL prospects. The NHL’s Central Scouting Service has ranked Nieves as the only Grade A player on its list of U.S. prep, high school and Tier II Canadian and U.S. junior players, and he is projected to go as high as the first round in the NHL draft next June.
Nieves hails from Baldwinsville, N.Y., where his parents, Joanne and Rafael, gave him the catchy nickname of “Boo” at a very young age, but he’s not sure how it originated.
“When I was younger, my parents called me ‘Boo,’ and it just sort of stuck with me,” Nieves said. “It was weird at first to hear people yelling, ‘Boo,’ but I got used to it.”
Nieves has a strong bond with his family, oftentimes reinforced by hockey. His mother’s side of the family helped grow his passion of the game and taught him how to skate when he was just 3 years old.
“My great uncle has been a huge influence on me growing up,” Nieves said. “He loves hockey and watches me play every chance he gets.”
In fact, Nieves’ family makes the trip from Baldwinsville to every game at Kent.
“It’s about a 3½-hour trip to Kent,” Nieves said, “but they drive out on game days, whether its Wednesday or Saturday, they’re usually there.”
Nieves grew up playing with experienced coach Steve Cibelli and the Syracuse Nationals youth hockey organization. Cibelli has seen a large number of star hockey players come through the Nationals program, including Tim Connolly (Baldwinsville, N.Y) of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Dustin Brown (Ithaca, N.Y.) of the Los Angeles Kings. Under Cibelli, Nieves progressed into a well-rounded player with fantastic skating ability — as evidenced by his highlight-reel goal in Slovakia.
“His skating is at an elite level already,” Cibelli said. “There are guys even at the show (NHL) that don’t skate as well. His two greatest assets are his hockey IQ and his hands. He simply makes guys around him better. He has a phenomenal feel for the game, and it is hard to just teach that.”
His playmaking abilities and size often draw comparisons to Boston College junior forward Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.), the New York Rangers’ 2009 first-round pick (19th overall) out of Phillips Andover.
“He simply in a nutshell makes the guys around him look better,” Cibelli said. “There are elements of his game that I think are better then Chris Kreider’s, and there are other elements of his game that he needs work on, but if you took the boards down both of those kids could skate from here to China. I don’t think there is that much of a difference between the two.”
Kent head coach Matt Herr agrees that Nieves has a shot of making the NHL,
“He is a little over 6-3, and he has a giant wingspan,” Herr said. “He is probably one of the best skaters to come through prep school hockey in the seven years I have been here.”
Last season, Nieves led his team to the NEPSIHA final, where Kent lost, 2-1, to a strong Milton Academy team. Nieves put up some great numbers last season, recording 43 goals, 18 assists and 61 points.
The decision for Nieves to play at Kent came after a lengthy list of potential teams came calling. The Niagara IceDogs selected him in the 2010 Ontario Hockey League draft following a stellar season in Syracuse. However, Cibelli said that Nieves’ decision to join the prep ranks was a smart one,
“I always felt that prep school would be a really good route for him. It has been a really good place for him,” Cibelli said. “I thought he did a great job at Kent last year; I thought he played with far more poise. I thought Matt (Herr) took the next logical transition with him.”
Both Cibelli and Herr have known each other for some time through youth hockey camps and tournaments in the New York area. The connection brought Nieves to Kent following a disappointing tryout with the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Before attending Kent last year, Nieves committed to play college hockey at the University of Michigan under the legendary Red Berenson. Herr also played for Berenson at Michigan.
“I did not know Coach Herr when I committed (to Michigan), but it is pretty cool that he did play there,” Nieves said. “He won two national championships and was a captain there, which helped my decision in coming to Kent because he clearly knows how to make it in the sport.”
Herr believes that he has set proper goals to prep Nieves for playing under Berenson.
“Prep school is the closest thing to college hockey in terms of games played, education and a balanced schedule,” Herr said. “‘Boo’ was committed before he came into Kent, but I think our goal has been to prepare him to go to Michigan.”
The decision to attend college instead of trying to play juniors in Canada was easy for Nieves, who believes that education and skill development are both important. He would like to pursue a degree in kinesiology at Michigan. He understands that anything can happen in a hockey career and having a degree is important,
“It wasn’t a difficult decision at all; I am for college 100 percent,” Nieves said. “Hockey does end at some point, and you do need an education. I love it here. Coach Herr has really helped me elevate my game, and hopefully we can do that again this year.”
With the prep season in full swing this month, the NHL draft on tap for June and Michigan in sight next fall, Nieves easily could get swept up in the hoopla of being a top prospect. But he’s staying focused on his team — and his game.
“I enjoy hockey because it is a very fast-paced game. It takes a high level of athleticism, and it opens doors and offers other opportunities in life,” Nieves said. “As a player, I need to work on my strength, physicality and attacking the net more.”
With the storied history of New England prep school hockey, Nieves could be joining a lengthy list of NHL players from the league.
“There has always been a lot of good kids in prep school hockey,” Herr said. “Does he still have things to improve on? Yeah, he definitely does, but as far as natural gifted talents, he has got the full package.”
Those talents could be turning heads for years come.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of New York Hockey Journal.
Justin Churchill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org