SCHENECTADY — When Union College men’s hockey goalie Garrett Nieto took the ice last Saturday to start the exhibition game against RPI at Messa Rink, a lot went through his mind.
Like dealing with two hip surgeries.
Like wondering if going through rehab after each surgery was worth it.
Like dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and having Union’s season canceled last year.
“It felt good to be out there last Saturday,” the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nieto said during an interview Wednesday. “It was two long years of constant rehab, recovery, a lot of talk with psychologists and sports psychologists. Just a lot of work put in behind the scenes that I felt was important in order to get back into playing shape and the playing mindset.”
The emotions of starting against RPI didn’t hit him until team captain Josh Kosack talked to him.
“Kosack came up to me and just told me that three years of hard work is finally paying off,” Nieto said. “That’s when it all hit me. I kind of broke down a little bit right before the game. I took a couple of deep breaths and told myself, ‘I belong here.’ This is what I’ve been working for the last three years and calmed myself down and got ready to play the period.”
Nieto gave up two goals. He was credited with facing just three shots, although it appeared that he made more than one save.
“It’s preseason for everybody,” Nieto said with a laugh.
Nieto injured his hip during the 2018-19 season while playing for the Janesville Jets of the North American Hockey League.
“I got hit in a game up in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I got three guys pushed on top of me and both of my feet met my ears,” Nieto said. “I got folded like a pretzel. What my doctor believes happened is that I injured both [sides of the hip] at the same time, but my right one was so much worse that my body and my mind just thought all of the pain was in my right side, so I had a little bit of pain on my left side after my first surgery, but I felt fine because we had rehabbed both sides.”
But in a practice just a couple of days before Union was set to start its 2019-20 season, the left hip gave way.
“One skate right before our first game my freshman year, I went to plant to push for a backdoor pass and everything just kind of gave out,” Nieto said. “What [the doctor] said I had [was] a labral tear with hip hingment, which is calcium buildup. They had to shave a lot of calcium off the ball of my hip, so I was immobilized [for] a couple of days after surgery.
“I couldn’t do a whole lot for the first couple of weeks after that. I could only get up to go to the bathroom. That was 10 feet away from my bed. I didn’t do a whole lot.”
Nieto admits that dealing with the two surgeries and the rehab took a toll mentally on him. Not playing last year because of the pandemic wasn’t as difficult.
“I understood the school’s decision on why they wanted to cancel,” Nieto said. “Obviously, I was upset because I wanted to play. But I felt like it gave me a little more time to really get back into a full year of practice, another full year of development under my belt and working with our new goalie coach Bryan McDonald really helped out a lot.
“But the first two years, I’m going to be honest, they were tough mentally. After my first surgery, I shut down. I really didn’t talk to anyone. I got into a dark place, and it wasn’t until I went back to my goalie coach in Wisconsin, where I spent my summers, that’s where I turned it around a little bit, trying to see everything in a positive outlook. I worked with some sports psychologists out there. When I got to Union, I worked a lot with our sports psychologist Dr. Wally Bzdell.”
Union coach Rick Bennett is impressed with the way Nieto has gotten himself back to playing.
“He’s a really nice guy,” Bennett said. “He’s working hard since he’s been on campus. That’s what we’ve asked. He’s faced a lot of adversity. To persevere like that, it’s nice to see him get that start and finally get in a game.”