Carl Nielsen grew-up in suburban Cleveland and goes to school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but he’d like to spend Christmas with his family in Detroit.
The 24-year-old Michigan Tech captain will already be in the Motor City – where the Huskies will play in the two-day Great Lakes Invitational, beginning on Dec. 29 – and could be joined here by his younger football playing brother, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman for the No. 17 ranked Kent State Golden Flashes.
Depending on the outcome of tonight’s Mid-American Conference championship at Ford Field, Kent State, if it beats Northern Illinois, could play in a Bowl Championship Series game in January. But if the Golden Flashes fall short in the MAC title game, they could return to Detroit for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl the day after Christmas.
Either way, his family wins, Nielsen said.
“My parents said something about the Little Caesars Bowl being right around the time of the GLI,” said Nielsen, a senior defenseman. “I just honestly hope that he gets to go somewhere. At 19-years-old, hockey is one thing, but going to a BCS game and playing in that atmosphere would be unbelievable.”
The 48th GLI at Joe Louis Arena begins Dec. 29 with a matchup of CCHA rivals when Western Michigan and Michigan State face-off for the first time this season at 3:30 p.m. EST. The WCHA’s Huskies play Michigan at 7 p.m.
The tournament championship will be held Dec. 30 at 7 p.m.
For a kid who grew-up in football-crazy Ohio, Carl Nielsen’s path to college hockey has been astonishing. He tried every sport imaginable as a young boy, giving baseball, soccer and swimming a try. But hockey was the sport that caught his interest.
“I guess hockey was the one that kind of stuck with me,” he said. “I started skating around on a pond and started playing road hockey. I never did get big into football until my senior year of high school. Did pretty well, but I thought that I would give hockey a shot and stick with it.”
One look at Nielsen’s Herculean physique and it’s easily understood why some collegiate football coaches inquired about the 6-foot-4, 228-pound high school defensive end. His younger brother, Alex, is 6-4 and 270-pounds.
“I was taking a weight-lifting class with our football coach and every once in awhile college (coaches) would come in to talk to him and occasionally I’d overhear someone say to him, ‘Who’s that over there?’ ” Nielsen said. “And he’d say, ‘Don’t mind him, he’s a hockey player.’ ”
However, at 18-years-old, Nielsen wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduating from Avon Lake High School, which is about a 30-minute drive west of Cleveland.
“At the time, there was a part of me that wanted to go up to the coach and tell him to let these guys know that I wanted to play football,” Nielsen said. “But at the same time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know where I wanted to go to school or what I wanted to be in. I hate to say that I was lost, but at 18 I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Six years later and things seem to have worked out fine for Nielsen, who was named team captain by his Michigan Tech teammates prior to this season. In 113 collegiate games, he has four goals and 14 assists. Through the first 10 games of the season, he leads the Huskies with a plus-3 rating.
“Thankfully hockey has worked out for the best and I’m in a better situation,” he said.
The feeling seems mutual for Huskies coach Mel Pearson, who deploys Nielsen to battle against the opposition’s top scoring lines every night.
“He does it every day,” Pearson said. “He’s our hardest working player whether it’s on the ice or off the ice. He maximizes his time in the weight room as well as practice and pushes himself hard. He’s just a tough kid.”
Nielsen learned to play football with a mean streak, something that he’s never shied from on the ice.
“There was a weird period of time when I was playing juniors where I had to learn between hockey mentality and football mentality,” said Nielsen, who turned down an opportunity to play football at Bowling Green. “It’s very easy in football to get yourself all fired up and you have three seconds of play and you have to worry about a guy across from you. There’s only so much that can happen either way in that situation, whereas in hockey you have a game that is ever changing.
“You can draw anything up on a board and it’s never going to happen that way. So to get into a mindset where you’re so fired up and so concentrated on one thing, it’s hard to do in hockey. But I try my best to bring that energy, that passion, that excitement that you see when you watch a football game on Saturday or Sunday afternoons.”
Nielsen is a powerful skater and a solid puck-handler capable of starting the offensive rush out of the Huskies’ zone. While his future has returned to uncertainty, Pearson agrees that Nielsen, like former Michigan captain Luke Glendening, can compete in the pro game.
“Luke was a heck of a football player and had some offers to play (college) football, as did Carl,” said Pearson, who was an assistant coach at Michigan when Glendening played for the Wolverines. “At some point they both wanted to be hockey players. I think Luke is a little more polished offensively than Carl, but you talk about the strength and the toughness and the compete-level they are very similar players.
“I think Carl will play pro and then as long as he continues to develop we’ll have to see how high of a level he can go to.”
In his first ECHL season, Glendening has compiled 10 goals and three assists in 19 games with the Toledo Walleye.
For now, Nielsen is more concerned with concentrating on his final college season.
“I can control what I can control on game nights and in practice,” said Nielsen, when asked about his future. “My focus is to enjoy my time here at Tech, enjoy my last 4-5 months here and just be the best player that I can be right now.”
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