Yorba Linda’s Nieto tandem compiles 2015-16 seasons to remember
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What’s almost 12 and a half feet tall, weighs more than 400 pounds and stops nearly everything shot its way?
If you guessed an imposing creature in a summer blockbuster monster movie, try again.
If you guessed the goaltending Nieto brothers of Yorba Linda, give yourself a gold star.
Lest you think we’re exaggerating, realize Gavin (1996 birth year) goes 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds while younger brother Garrett (a ’98) is 6-3 and 235.
That part about stopping just about everything? No exaggeration either. Gavin went 33-5-1 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in the regular season, then upped that pace (1.37 GAA and .945) in helping Fairbanks win the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup. Fittingly, Gavin ended it with a shutout – his third of the playoffs and ninth overall this past season.
Colleges took note. In late December, Gavin committed to Brown University (ECAC), and Garrett followed by committing to Lake Superior State (WCHA) in mid-April.
The sigh of relief you heard was from Tom and Jen Nieto, who not only no longer will have to purchase two sets of goalie gear for growing boys, but might actually be able to take trips together. Such is the life for parents of multiple travel hockey players.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever been on a trip together,” Tom said. “The years they both played AAA were tough.”
The rewards are more obvious now.
“No. 1, this is an all-around great family,” said Louis Pacella, who coached both boys with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings. “Tom and Jen did everything you could ask for as hockey parents. Tom coached at the Wave, Jen managed teams for me for two years, and they billeted kids. They supported their kids and others.’”
The Nietos did get to see their sons play at the USA Hockey Youth Nationals together in 2013 in Anchorage, Alaska, when Gavin was with the Jr. Kings Midget 16U AAA team and Garrett was on the Anaheim Jr. Ducks Bantam AAA team.
That Nationals run was particularly memorable for Garrett, who bounced back from a loss to the Jr. Kings at Pacific Districts to make 56 saves in a 4-3 triple-overtime win to clinch the Nationals berth.
Gavin made his Nationals debut the season before with the Jr. Kings 16U AAA team.
“That was the first time I noticed all the scouts in the stands,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy how many guys from our team are playing Division I hockey or will be soon.”
The brothers’ path to college included a lot of road work.
Garrett, meanwhile, started and stayed with the Jr. Ducks for Mites and Squirts, while Gavin shifted to the Wave in Artesia – a mere 22 miles away – for Pee Wees and Bantams. Garrett joined him there for Pee Wees, giving the Nietos a bit of a break, and Tom helped coach Gavin’s teams.
Gavin’s move to the Jr. Kings coincided with Garrett’s back to the Jr. Ducks, setting the table for Gavin’s first Nationals experience.
But Gavin’s 2011-12 season wasn’t without a hitch.
“Gavin tried out for my Jr. Kings team in 2011, but we were committed to Thatcher Demko, and I told Gavin he wouldn’t play much,” Pacella said. “He should focus on going somewhere he could play all the time and get in better shape. He returned to the Wave, where he played 16AA. When Thatcher went to the USHL, Gavin was the first goalie I called.
“I didn’t recognize him when I saw him – he’d grown and thinned out. I could not believe the transformation. He shut out Shattuck-St. Mary’s at Nationals, which put him on the radar. I couldn’t be happier for that guy, to go from 16U AA to NCAA Division I in just a few years – a total late bloomer. He was really dedicated to his training.”
Gavin moved on to Kimball Union prep school and spent time with Dubuque of the United States Hockey League before landing in Fairbanks.
“I think we knew we had a good team early in the year,” Gavin said. “We played Lone Star, considered a favorite to win it all, to a 0-0 tie and won in a shootout. The way we handled ourselves told me we knew what we were capable of.”
Gavin’s play sparked the Ice Dogs’ special season, one of his closest observers said.
“I’ve watched him play goal for 12 years,” Garrett said. “He was very good. We watch each other’s games and give feedback. He helped make my adjustment to junior easier.”
Garrett landed in Wenatchee after playing 16U for the Jr. Kings. But he stepped in as a No. 2 to RPI commit Chase Perry.
“This was his first year of juniors, and he understood the role he was in,” Wenatchee goaltending coach Chris Clark said. “His teammates love him. You have to be a good person to handle being the second guy in a tandem as well as he did.
“He is the last one on the ice on nights he isn’t playing because he will work with his teammates as long as they want. Guys see that and when he does play they’re willing to do anything for him.”
Garrett’s positive attitude was one attribute that set him apart. Another was his size, which says middle linebacker, not hockey player. But looks can be deceiving.
“For a kid to be that big to have that amount of athleticism is unbelievable – his lateral mobility is unbelievable,” Clark said. “He’s aggressive, too. When you’re 6-3 and come out of the net to cut down an angle, there isn’t much to see.
“His athletic ability combined with his gift of size and his competitiveness – all three are off the charts. His competitiveness separates him.”
But he kept news of college decision on the down low.
“I had the impression schools were looking at him, but I had no idea about any offers,” Gavin said. “Then one day he tells me, ‘Oh yeah, I committed to Lake State this morning.’ I had to ask him for more details.”
The sons of Tom and Jen could also be called sons of Wayne or Luc or Marty, or any other Kings of the early 1990s.
“The Cup run in ’93 hooked me,” Tom said. “I’d never played until I joined an adult league. I fell in love with the game.”
The boys learned to skate early and found the net not long after that. The net result is furthering their hockey careers.
“Our parents were always there for us,” Garrett said. “They both drove us everywhere. Now they’re able to watch.”
Added Gavin: “This past year has been pretty surreal – a year ago you’d never thought we’d both commit to D-I schools. It has come out of nowhere for both of us, and I can’t thank my parents enough for all they did. They sacrificed a lot – financially and their time – to support us.”
Tom and Jen’s work isn’t quite finished. Their daughter Megan is a standout basketball player entering her sophomore year in high school.
– Chris Bayee