SCHENECTADY — When Union College men’s hockey goalkeeper Garrett Nieto took to the ice last Saturday to start an exhibition game against the RPi at the Mesa rink, he had a lot going on 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 canceling the union’s season last year.
“It felt good to be there last Saturday,” 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nieto said during an interview Wednesday. “It was two long years of constant rehab, recovery, a lot of conversations with psychologists and sports psychologists. To get back into the shape of the game and the mindset of play I felt there was a lot of important work behind the scenes.”
It wasn’t until team captain Josh Cossack spoke to him that he didn’t feel like starting against the RPi.
“The Cossacks came to me and told me that three years of hard work were finally paying off,” said Nieto. “That’s when it all hit me. I was a little broke right before the game. I took a few deep breaths and said to myself, ‘I belong here.’ I have been doing the same thing for the last three years and calmed myself down and got ready to play this period.
Nieto scored two goals. He was credited for facing just three shots, although he appeared to have made more than one save.
“It’s pre-season for everyone,” said Nieto 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 at a game in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I was pushed by three guys and both my feet met my ears,” Nieto said. “I was folded like a pretzel. My doctor believes it happened that I injured both [sides of the hip] At the same time, but my right side was so bad that my body and my mind thought all the pain was in my right side, so after my first surgery I had a little pain on my left side, but I felt good because we rehabilitated both sides did.”
But in a practice just days before Union started its 2019-20 season, the left hip gave way.
“One skate right before the first game of our freshman year, I went to the plant to push near the back door and everything was given,” Nieto said. “What [the doctor] where i had [was] A labral tear along the hip hinge, which is calcium buildup. They had to remove a lot of calcium from the ball of my hip, so I was immobile [for] a few days after surgery.
“I couldn’t do much for the first few weeks after that. I could only get up to go to the bathroom. He was 10 feet away from my bed. I didn’t do much.”
Nieto admitted that dealing with two surgeries and rehab took a toll on him mentally. Not playing last year because of the pandemic was not that difficult.
“I understood the school’s decision as to why they wanted to cancel,” Nieto said. “Obviously, I was upset because I wanted to play. But I felt like it really gave me a little more time to come back to a full year of practice, with another full year of development under my belt and working with our new goalscoring coach, Brian McDonald, really helped .
“But the first two years, I’m going to be honest, they were tough mentally. After my first surgery, I put off. I didn’t really talk to anyone. I ended up in a dark place, and it It wasn’t until I went back to my goalkeeper coach in Wisconsin, where I spent my summers, that I changed it up a bit, trying to look at everything in a positive light. I met some sports psychologists there. When I came to Union, I worked a lot with my sports psychologist, Dr. Wally Buzzdale.
Union coach Rick Bennett is impressed with the way Nieto has prepared himself to play back.
“He’s a really nice guy,” Bennett said. “He’s been working hard ever since he’s on campus. That’s what we’ve asked. He’s gone through a lot of hardships. To stay that way, watch him start and get into a game at the end feels good. “
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