- Brock Nelson is one of the Islanders' most dangerous offensive weapons. One day, he hopes to be an Olympian like his family predecessors.
After four years hopping around Warroad, Minn., at times operating from an abandoned gas station and an old grocery store in the two-stoplight town, the Christian Brothers stick company finally built its first plant in 1964 on a vacant lot near the railroad tracks for better access to lumber.
Named by its founders, 1960 Winter Olympic gold medalists Bill and Roger, the family business became trusted for its products—rock elm for blades, white ash for shafts, everything steamed and curved in-house—crafted by known names. “Hockey sticks by hockey players,” the motto went. Over time, though, the company began pumping another export from its headquarters: Two more generations of known United States hockey names in Bill’s son Dave, a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice, and his grandson Brock Nelson, currently the 25-year-old leading scorer for the New York Islanders. (Gordy Christian—Brock's great uncle—also won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympics.)
Starting around fifth grade, Brock would rush from school to the factory across the street, spending his afternoons raiding Bill’s change jar for the candy machines, rummaging through bins of loose blades, sanding down sticks when was old enough to handle the machinery. For most other kids in northern Minnesota, six miles south of the Canadian border, this would’ve been a Wonka-like wonderland. For Brock? “I just always used the Christian stick,” he says. “We always had them all over the place. It was just the norm. Didn’t really realize it until after that it’s a pretty neat little history to have.”
Looking back now, the benefits of Brock’s bloodlines are easy to spot. He golfs over the summer with Dave, who led the U.S. in assists at Lake Placid and eventually played 1,009 NHL games. As a child, Bill would pull him from school during lunchtime to skate at the local rink. Today, an Islanders game rarely passes without Bill texting beforehand to wish Brock good luck, or afterward to offer some advice. “A lot of people don’t really know the history, the hockey history,” Brock says. “Some do back home. Some don’t. It’s hit or miss.”
Christian Brothers shut down production in 2003, nudged from the market by graphite composite conglomerates, but the family legacy remains in good hands. Brock has represented the U.S. at three world championships, posting a team-high 10 points in 2015, and could fall into consideration for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea—assuming NHL players attend and his current production continues.
Last season, Nelson’s 26 goals were second on the Islanders, behind only captain John Tavares, and his 1.20 goals per 60 even-strength minutes ranked sixth in the entire league. An astronomical 15.8 shooting percentage boosted those figures, but among the 56 NHLers who notched 25 goals, he also finished 55th in average time on ice (15:48), deployed at both wing and center beside a rotating cast of linemates.
Coupled with the Islanders’ appearance in the Eastern Conference semifinals, their first since 1992–93, this all left Nelson plenty anxious throughout the summer. His wife, Karley, noticed this on their honeymoon in Bora Bora, when Nelson began packing clothes into his suitcase days before the trip ended. “My wife would tell you that I was ready to go about a week in,” he says. “Just putting some stuff back in the suitcase, some clothes and whatnot. You feel like you’re missing out.”
Nine games into the 2016–17 schedule, Nelson already feels more comfortable than he did this time last year. His nine points and six assists each lead the Islanders. His minutes continue to fluctuate—while recording a goal and a secondary helper Sunday against Toronto, Nelson’s 11:46 ice time matched his lowest since his rookie season—but coach Jack Capuano has also steadily used him at center. Plus, the contentious contract talks of last fall, which dragged into mid-September before a three-year, $7.5 million extension got signed, are a distant memory.
“Quite a bit different,” Nelson says. “It was pretty stressful last year, just not knowing and trying to get settled. A little bit hectic at the end, running around, trying to figure out what was going to happen. You knew it was inevitable, but it was just a matter of when.
“I’d like to think I stayed pretty calm. The externals, things you can’t control, you brush them off, but they were happening quite often. You’ll have highs and lows. If you can stay close to that norm, you’re going to be better.”
Along with a pinpoint wrist shot—“The way he puts it in the right spots all the time,” says teammate and fellow Minnesota native Anders Lee, “it’s evident how easy it comes for him”—Nelson counts calmness among his hallmark traits. Bill, for instance, remembers his grandson quietly observing the assembly process at the stick factory, as though he wanted to learn something new.
Today, Bill likes asking Brock about the modern NHL life, but still finds time to tell stories from Squaw Valley—how his three assists and Roger’s hat trick beat Sweden; how his two goals overcame a late deficit against the U.S.S.R., in the semis; how a Soviet player later lugged an oxygen tank into their dressing room during the third period against Czechoslovakia, because an American victory meant the Soviets would finish ahead of their European rivals.
Dave, too, has lent an experienced ear when Brock needs one, like when his son weighed turning pro after his sophomore year at North Dakota. But since Dave played 13-plus NHL seasons, and since he once scored 340 goals, and since he wasn’t living in Warroad to take Brock to the rink at lunchtime, their relationship involves a little more distance and awe. “He’s more of an idol and role model to me than anything,” Brock says. “Maybe a bit nervous at time to pick his brain. I look up to him as inspiration.”
Brock has seen old tape of his grandfather in Squaw Valley, and some game footage of his uncle at the Miracle on Ice. (“If you count the movie ‘Miracle,’ then quite often,” he says.) Bill and Dave auctioned off their gold medals together earlier this year, but Brock had plenty of time around the hardware as a kid. “We’d get to take it out every now and then to show people, but not very often,” Brock says. “When you’re able to do that, you’re able to see how excited and intrigued people are to look, to hear the stories. It hits you that that’s quite a big deal.”
Evidenced by all the Islanders gear in the memorabilia room at his Florida condo, Bill feels much the same about Brock’s career. “It’s really hard to believe that it keeps going,” Bill says. “It’s very special. It’s got to be in the genes.” He pauses. He’s thinking about the 2018 Olympics.
“Now I hope we get to relieve it in a couple years.”