Nov. 15, 2001
It wasn’t too long ago that Notre Dame defenseman Evan Nielsen was the new kid on the block. As a freshman during the 1999-2000 season, the Evanston, Ill., native had the luxury of playing on a defense that was anchored by four seniors and a junior.
As in all college sports, rosters change on a yearly basis. As a sophomore, Nielsen went from being the rookie to a veteran along with senior Ryan Clark on a defense that played four freshmen on a regular basis. Following the season, just two years removed from being a rookie, Nielsen was selected by his teammates to captain the 2001-02 Notre Dame hockey team.
“It’s definitely an honor to be picked by your peers to be one of their leaders. It’s a big responsibility and something I take very seriously,” says Nielsen.
“I’m not a rah-rah type captain. I try to lead by example on the ice. I have to be the solid guy, the rock on defense. No matter what happens, I have to keep my poise and be the leader.”
“It’s been a challenge and a learning experience. A big part of what I am learning is how to motivate people. Everyone responds differently. It’s about cooperating and learning what makes other people tick.”
While Nielsen has been learning on the job since last May, he also has the unique opportunity of having a coach who was one of the better captains in the National Hockey League during his playing days in Irish bench boss Dave Poulin.
“He (Poulin) makes my job a lot easier. I can go in and talk to him. There isn’t anything that I can’t talk to him about,” explains Nielsen.
Nielsen’s journey to Notre Dame took a course a bit different than most of his teammates. While many members of the Irish roster played junior hockey, Nielsen is the only Notre Dame player to come straight from prep school.
After playing two years at Evanston High School, he realized he needed to play either at a prep school or go to junior hockey to face better competition. Nielsen selected the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., where he played football, hockey and lacrosse.
“I looked at five or six prep schools and The Taft School was a good fit for me. Education is an important thing in my family, so my parents encouraged me to take that route. I couldn’t be happier with the decision,” says Nielsen.
As his prep career wound down Nielsen had interest from many of the top hockey schools in the country. He selected Notre Dame after considering New Hampshire, Vermont, Cornell, Yale and Harvard.
“When I came to Notre Dame for my visit, it was in the Midwest and I realized that’s where I wanted to be. I really liked my meeting with Coach Poulin. He was a hockey guy and seemed like he would be a good guy to play for. Those two things and the great academics at Notre Dame were what convinced me to come here,” explains Nielsen.
The 6-3, 214-pound Nielsen stepped right into the Irish lineup and benefited from playing with a group of talented veteran defensemen. He scored four goals and assisted on 10 others for 14 points and was plus 3 for the season.
“My first season when I came in, I always knew the older guys were there. If I made a mistake, they were there,” says Nielsen.
“I think that affected my play at the beginning of last year. I was now the older guy and I tried to do everything. I was forcing things, trying to cover for guys and I wasn’t playing my game. When I quit worrying about everyone else’s job, that’s when things started to come around for me.”
Nielsen came on strong in the second half of the season and became one of the top defensemen in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association helping lead Notre Dame to a 4-1-2 record over its final seven games.
For the year, the Irish captain had two goals and 10 assists for 12 points and was plus 1 for the year. Both of his goals were crucial goals during the stretch run and both came via breakaways.
His first goal was the game-winner in a 5-3 win over Bowling Green and came with 44 seconds left. As time wound down with the game tied at three, Dan Carlson found Nielsen alone at center ice. The Irish defenseman raced in on Bowling Green goaltender Tyler Masters, faked right and slid a back-hander past him for the 4-3 lead.
“I used a move that I always try in practice and it never works, but it did in that game. Someone asked me after the game when was the last time I scored on a breakaway, and I couldn’t remember,” commented Nielsen.
Six days later, in Notre Dame’s game with Michigan, it was d?j? vu as the big defenseman scored on another breakaway to spark an Irish rally.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Nielsen, an eighth round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.
“As I skated down the ice I was thinking to myself, ‘This is unbelievable, two games in a row.’ I went to the backhand and it worked again.”
Nielsen’s goal made it 3-2 and the Irish went on to rally for a 4-4 tie at Yost Arena.
While his current Irish team is off to a slow start, Nielsen believes things will start to turn around in the weeks ahead.
“We have a lot of talent here. So far, we seem to shoot ourselves in the foot. We seem to be trying too hard to make the pretty play. There’s nothing wrong with making the simple play, like chipping the puck off the glass instead of turning it over in our end. We just have to concentrate, keep it simple and move the puck. We’ll be alright once we start eliminating the big mistakes,” says Nielsen.