The Colorado Avalanche have one of the few Latinos to play hockey, Matt Nieto. They should ask him to be a bridge to the large Hispanic community here.
Colorado Avalanche left wing Matthew Nieto is a rare breed in the NHL. We all joke that he’s “Long Beach Native” Matt Nieto because so few ice hockey players come from the beach where, you know, it’s beachy rather than icy.
However, Nieto’s heritage and background beyond his birthplace make him an even rarer breed. He’s one of the few Latinos in the NHL.
We all know the NHL is notoriously homogeneous. We often focus on the few African American players that break up that homogeneity. However, while I don’t think there’s been an official comparison, I believe there are even fewer Latinos.
Besides Nieto, who’s of Mexican-American descent, I’ve come across the following current NHLers:
- Max Pacioretty‘s mother is from Mexico.
- Al (short for Álvaro) Montoya is the first Cuban American to play in the NHL.
- Alec Martinez‘ paternal grandfather is Spanish. He also celebrates Cinco de Mayo, at least for show:
Ok, technically he should have been dressed like a bullfighter instead since his family is from Spain, but we’re just going to roll with it. (In a minute we’re going to talk about his experience as a Latino in the NHL, which he alludes to in the above interview.)
Besides retired NHLers like the first Latin NHLer, Bill Guerin (not drafted until 1989), Scott Gomez and Raffi Torres, there’s one other NHLer I’ve come across who’s Latino. Some guy named Auston Matthews — have you heard of him? That’s right, the Maple Leafs superstar, their first-overall pick from 2016, has a mother who’s from Hermosillo, Mexico.
Going back to our own, slightly more humble Latino. Besides his heritage, Nieto is the quintessential underdog. He is the son of a longshoreman and a Nordstrom makeup artist. He didn’t grow up on the nice side of Long Beach — he grew up in a dangerous neighborhood. Here’s how his mother, Mary, described of their neighborhood:
"“There were drive-by shootings. He jokes about it, that Snoop Dogg lived around the corner. It’s true, but Matt wasn’t born then.”"
She further talked about his humble beginnings:
"“Probably everybody he hung out with is either in a gang or on drugs or something. I think hockey saved his life, absolutely. Hockey became a way out for a Mexican-American kid in Southern California.”"
You really wouldn’t expect a kid in those surroundings to use hockey to get out. Hockey is an expensive sport. However, Nieto started out playing roller hockey. He later transitioned to ice hockey, playing with the L.A. Hockey Club. Eventually, he moved first to Connecticut to play hockey for the Salisbury (preparatory) School and eventually Ann Arbor to play in the USA National Team Development Program.
And in 2011, Matt Nieto was drafted in the second round by the San Jose Sharks.
A couple more things about Matt Nieto’s underdog background. His sister has both Down syndrome and autism, which seems like a tough road. Maybe even tougher, just before his rookie season (2015) Nieto’s mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Last report was that she was fighting the good fight. (F*ck cancer, eh?)
Oh, and on a happy note, Nieto got married this summer.
So, let’s return to the Alec Martinez video. At one point halfway through, he talks about being singled out among the hockey community for his Latino heritage. People will come up to him and try speaking Spanish. He laughs it off, saying he always tells them to slow down. However, the point is that they single him out because of his heritage, not his country of origin (like trying to speak French to Sam Girard).
I find that interesting because similar things have happened to me. I’ve also been singled out. I’m Latina myself. Sometimes the singling out has been relatively innocuous — I’ve been told I speak English well with “hardly any accent.” (Thanks. I grew up in southern Colorado and have a degree in English Writing.) Many times, the singling out has been… less innocuous. (The same man asked me if I was descended from melon pickers. My grandparents owned a large sheep ranch, thanks.)
And that’s why this topic matters to me. It’s nice to be able to connect to some of these players on a different level, someone who’s maybe had shared experiences because of their backgrounds.
I’m going to repeat that: It’s nice to connect to these players on an ethnic level. I support each and every one of them for the low-key trailblazing they’re doing.
In 2013, Raffi Torres spoke to Fox News Latino, he remarked that little outreach was being done within the Latino community. To me, that makes no sense. The NHL is trying to grow the game. According to the 2017 Census Bureau, the Latinx demographic is the largest minority group in the U.S. with 18.1%.
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I don’t have any stats on how many of that population follows hockey. I can tell you from my personal experience that being Latinx doesn’t preclude you from enjoying hockey, the sport. Is the culture all that welcoming to the Hispanic community, though? No. We return to the observation that the hockey playing community is largely homogeneous. We don’t expect players to look like us or share our cultural experiences when we’re from the Hispanic community.
Does that matter? To me, no. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m an ornery sort — I have no problem pushing myself into this community because everyone has freedom to be a hockey fan. No one owns the market on who gets to and doesn’t get to be a fan of the greatest sport in the world. Nor do I know why they would want to.
Does the lack of outreach matter to others in the Latinx community. Judging by the fans I see going to games here in Denver, yes. Homogeneous group.
To be fair, some teams, such as the San Jose Sharks, are hosting Hispanic Heritage nights during Hispanic Heritage Month. Some teams, such as the Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Blackhawks, have even included Spanish-speaking broadcasts for some of their games.
Nonetheless, it seems the NHL is really missing out on a big market since they want to grow the game so badly. Why shouldn’t they explore that avenue? Especially since one of the biggest names in hockey, Auston Matthews, has connections in that regard.
Has anyone even thought to approach him and instead of asking about growing up in the non-traditional market of Arizona pondering if he could be an ambassador of the sport to the Latinx community?
Moving back to the Colorado Avalanche. Here in Colorado, 21% of the population — 1.136 million people — are Hispanic. Boy, we could fill up Pepsi Center so not even a lone Blackhawks fan could squeak in.
Except… there’s no outreach to us. The Colorado Avalanche do not host an Hispanic Heritage night. They do not broadcast any games in Spanish. There are no giveaways relating to Latinx heritage.
That’s a crying shame considering the Colorado Avalanche have what so very few teams have — a Latino conveniently on the roster. Matt Nieto. He’s no superstar like Matthews, but he’s a likeable young man.
He seems like a reserved young man, though. I doubt he’d put himself out there on his own, especially since he isn’t a superstar like Matthews, a Stanley Cup champion like Martinez or a former captain like Pacioretty.
However, I think it would behoove the Avalanche to approach him. Maybe he could work with captain Gabriel Landeskog, the ambassador to end all ambassadors in the NHL. Perhaps they could develop an outreach program to the 1.136 million people here in Colorado of Hispanic origin.
C’mon, Colorado Avalanche, the Latinx community represents literally hundreds of thousands of potential hockey fans you can reach out to. Let’s join the trailblazers represented by Matthews, Torres, Martinez and our very own Nieto.
Let’s show that Hockey is For Everyone is more than a clever slogan.