For prospect Nieves, game at MSG teases what's to come
by Elliot Olshansky/Correspondent
NEW YORK — For Cristoval Nieves, stepping onto the ice at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 24 was a look into the future.
In fairness, it’s worth pointing out that the small chorus of “Boo” chants that echoed in the World’s Most Famous Arena when he was introduced may have had less to do with the upstate New York native’s nickname than with the fact that his Michigan team was the visitor at the “Frozen Apple” game against Cornell.
Still, from the New York Rangers logo at center ice to the singing of the national anthem by John Amirante (Bronx, N.Y.), Nieves was surrounded by hallmarks of the NHL career that could await him with the Blueshirts, who selected him in the second round (59th overall) in June’s NHL draft.
“It’s unbelievable,” Nieves (Baldwinsville, N.Y.) said before the game. “I’ve never played in an NHL rink before, let alone the team I’ve been drafted to.”
It was a look to the future for Nieves. For his coach, longtime Michigan bench boss Gordon “Red” Berenson, the trip to the Big Apple was a look back into the past.
Berenson’s history with the Garden dates back to the early 1960s and the venerated building’s third iteration, where he played as a visitor with the Montreal Canadiens before calling the building home as a Ranger in 1966 and ’67. He later returned to play in the current Garden with the St. Louis Blues and the Detroit Red Wings, and coached there as a visitor with the Blues and the Buffalo Sabres.
For the only coach to win both the NHL’s Jack Adams Award and its college cousin — the Spencer Penrose Award — memories of MSG tend to drift toward the old building on Eighth Avenue between 48th and 49th streets.
“I remember the Garden being a real multi-purpose building,” Berenson recalled. “I remember Cassius Clay — that’s when he was still Cassius Clay — was sparring in the old Garden after one of our practices, and we all watched him. There was always something going on at the Garden.”
Of course, when it comes to “something happening” at the Garden, the strangest event in Berenson’s history at the building comes from 1967, when he was on the ice for one of the most infamous nights in the history of Rangers fandom.
“We were playing Montreal,” Berenson recalled. “Somebody threw an egg from the balcony, hit Gump Worsley on the head and knocked him out. Gump was playing for Montreal then. He was a fan favorite in New York, but obviously, when he came back wearing a Montreal jersey … anybody, somebody hit him with an egg. It was amazing, really. He finished the game, but it was scary for a while.”
Naturally, for both player and coach, arriving at the Garden in the midst of the lengthy NHL lockout was a serious disappointment, although it didn’t affect the atmosphere in the building for the game, which ended as a 5-1 Cornell win.
“The energy in the building was terrific,” Berenson said. “You’d think there was an NHL season going on.”
For Berenson and his team, the lockout has had tangible effects. The Wolverines had been scheduled to play the annual Great Lakes Invitational tournament outdoors at Comerica Park in connection with the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium, while Berenson had been scheduled to play in one of two alumni games at Comerica. After the Winter Classic was canceled, however, all of that came off the table.
“The Winter Classic here at Michigan would have been phenomenal,” Berenson said, “But that’s not gonna happen, at least not this year. That really changes a lot. The GLI is not outdoors, it’s back in the Joe, which is fine, but that would have been a special GLI, and then the alumni games would have been tremendous. This whole lockout has a lot of unintended consequences.”
Not all the consequences for Nieves and his Michigan teammates have been bad, however. With many NHLers looking for ways to stay sharp in anticipation of a season still to begin, there have been more than a few familiar faces around Ann Arbor.
“We’ve had Jack Johnson skate with us for a bit and help us out in practice,” Nieves said. “Matt Hunwick, he’s been around, and then a bunch of guys were here the other weekend for alumni weekend. It’s been cool to see guys who have played here before us.”
Another familiar face was waiting when the Wolverines arrived at Madison Square Garden — Rangers winger Carl Hagelin, who came out to support his alma mater against the Big Red. Nieves wears the same No. 12 jersey that the speedy Swede once wore in Ann Arbor and has spoken about having “big skates to fill” with the Wolverines.
“Right now, I’m just trying to worry about my game,” Nieves said. “Carl was a great player when he was here, but I’m more worried about myself. I’m not trying to compare myself in any way. I’m just trying to do what I can to help my team.”
Nieves’ team can use the help. The loss against Cornell dropped Michigan’s record to 5-7-1, a poor start for a team that has advanced to the NCAA tournament for 22 consecutive years. However, Berenson is confident that his team will come around.
“We’re trying to find our way,” he said. “I’m focusing on our team, and how we prepare and how we play.”
As for Nieves, who had two goals and six assists in his first 13 college games, Berenson sees a bright future.
“He’s a great kid,” Berenson said, “and he’s really in sync with college hockey and what we’re trying to do, being a good student and a good player. I see a kid who has got breakaway speed at times. He’s got a great sense of on-ice vision. He sees plays. Right now, I think he’s a pass-first player, but he also looks to jump into holes. He’s got a good shot and that’s something we’re after him to use more.”
With his 19th birthday around the corner, Nieves still has time to learn and grow, and after talking to a Michigan alum on campus, he knows he has time to use it.
“I talked to Hunwick a lot,” Nieves said. “He said, ‘Just don’t rush it. Enjoy your time here. There’s no rush to go anywhere.’ I would not rather be anywhere other than Michigan right now.”
When the time comes, however, Nieves will be happy to embrace a different shade of blue. And the arena that houses it.
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New York Hockey Journal.