28 teams and counting for goalie
Niedert has been all around minor leagues.
When Nick Niedert came to Fort Wayne for the Komets’ 2004 training camp, like every rookie he was dreaming this was the start of his road to the National Hockey League. Instead, his path was a little broader.
Two weeks ago Niedert was released by the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators, and last week his Federal Hockey League rights were traded to the Watertown Privateers. The Privateers are the 28th team in nine leagues Niedert has played for during his 10-year career. Not once was he signed as an emergency backup goaltender, meaning each time he signed a regular contract.
“I’ve seen North America,” he said. “I traveled a ton, and I get to meet marvelous people and live different cultures. It’s fascinating, and I still love what I do and love going to the rink. And it’s better than an office job.”
Niedert is not the player who has played for more minor league teams than anyone else (that’s likely Trevor Jobe with 34), but he’s probably in the top 10 all-time. No one starts a career or even a season thinking life is always going to be filled with constant new opportunities.
“One of my old coaches told me I was unlucky No. 13 all the time,” Niedert said. “He said, `You’re almost set and then something happens.’ When I look back at it, it’s been good. It paid my bills for 10 years and kept a roof over my head. I can’t say anything bad about it.”
When he tried out for the Komets, they already had Kevin St. Pierre and Kelly Shields under contract, so there was really no chance for Niedert. After he was released, his travels started as he went to a funeral in northern Minnesota and then drove overnight to Columbus, Ga., for an exhibition game with the Macon Traxx.
He slept on the trainers table during the first period, sat in the runway for the second and played well enough in the third to make the team, at least for a while. That season he played with Asheville, Columbus, Knoxville and Macon in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“It was the worst timing ever to turn pro because it was the first (NHL) lockout and guys were going everywhere,” he said. “I was on four teams, and there were guys who were on five or six.”
During his second year, he played for two teams and for one his third. Life seemed to be settling down. Then he followed Fort Wayne native Brian Gratz to a pair of Class A leagues, winning a championship in 2009 in the Eastern Professional Hockey League.
“He’s one of those guys who just has an enormous passion for the game and for it to be done the right way,” Gratz said. “He really sets an example of how young guys need to respect the game and the process. If you want to get to another level or have any kind of longevity, it takes work. There are no games off. It’s an old-school mentality.”
Then the bouncing really started. In 2009-10, Niedert played in Madison, Flint and West Michigan, followed the next season by Danbury and Dayton. The 2011-12 tour included Danbury, Elmira, Knoxville, Trenton and Wheeling.
“Two years ago, I said that would be my last year,” Niedert said. “I never really thought like that until later that year. I was playing for Elmira on a Tuesday at practice and found out one of their goalies was coming back from Binghamton. It was late in the year and I was going back to Danbury and just figured that’s the way it goes.”
So he drove back to Danbury and was eating dinner when his phone rang. Wheeling coach Clark Donatelli was calling to say the Nailers had picked Niedert off waivers and were on their way to Elmira. Niedert drove through a huge snowstorm to Elmira and was told after the game he was being recalled by Bridgeport to the American Hockey League. After the Sound Tigers played in Albany on a Friday night, he was sent back to Wheeling, which was playing in Cincinnati.
“At that point, I was done,” Niedert said. “Enough is enough, four teams and three leagues in 72 hours. I didn’t know what to do.”
A couple of days later, Donatelli called again to say the Nailers wanted to keep Niedert for the rest of the year.
Niedert was going to quit after that season, but Elmira convinced him they wanted him from the start last season, so he signed in July. That season he played for Elmira, Danbury, Orlando, Bloomington, Augusta, Reading, Gwinnett and Huntsville.
“I couldn’t be married doing this,” he said. “If I were married it would be a lot different.”
The one concession he has made is moving to Danbury so he can be a little closer to home for most of his travels and closer to his part-time job at a hockey store. Besides some great memories, the coolest things he has from his transactions are souvenirs from every team he’s played for.
He’s also played in every North American minor league, dressing for 577 games and playing in more than 250, which is a pretty good career for a goaltender. The strangest thing is he gets instant respect from everyone as soon as he walks into the locker room simply because he’s hung on this long.
“There were a couple of times when I thought maybe I’d played a year too long, but then I went to Gwinnett this year and I was pretty happy with the whole experience,” he said. “In the end, the experiences have been good, and I got to see a lot of things that most people don’t. I’ve enjoyed every second of it for the most part.”
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For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at blakesebring and at his blog, tailingthekomets.com.