When Brock Nelson was 2, almost 3, his mother signed him up for a figure skating lesson at the John Rose Oval in Roseville.
His older sister was taking lessons and his mom, Jeri, thought it’d be a good way to get him on the ice. In the 20-minute session, the 2-year-old Brock did everything but listen to the instructor. Jeri later apologized for his behavior, but the instructor stopped her short. It was pretty clear at such a young age that Brock was a natural skater; he was fine on the ice by himself.
When the three Nelsons returned to the car, Brock whined, “Mom, when I told you I wanted to skate, I wanted to play hockey. Not figure skate.”
“He was so mad at me,” Jeri laughed upon recounting the story.
Brock got his wish as his mom signed him up for Centennial Youth Hockey Association’s initiation program in the north metro area of the Twin Cities. All they asked of the 2-year old was that he picked himself up if he fell. Almost immediately, Brock and hockey became inseparable.
“He wanted to play hockey since he was old enough to speak it,” Jeri said. “When he got his first pair of hockey skates, he wouldn't let me take them off his feet. So he slept with them and when he fell asleep I took them off. When he got up he wanted them on again. He would put them on all day long and walk on the carpet. When they talk about hockey genes, he definitely has hockey genes.”
The sport truly is in his blood. Jeri’s maiden name is Christian, of the famed Christians of Warroad, Minnesota. Her brother, Brock’s uncle, Dave played for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team of “Miracle on Ice” notoriety.
But the family’s hockey history doesn’t end there. His grandfather, Bill, and great uncle, Roger, played for the 1960 Olympic team that captured the country’s first-ever gold medal in the sport. The brothers also played on the 1964 team, and eventually formed a company that made hockey sticks, aptly named Christian Brothers. Another great uncle, Gordon Christian, played for Team USA in the 1956 games and earned silver, starting the family’s Olympic legacy.
The Christians aren’t the only Warroad residents to play in the Games or excel at hockey’s highest levels. In the 2014 Olympics, Gigi Marvin and T.J. Oshie each represented Warroad on Team USA. Marvin helped the women’s team earn silver. In addition to the Christians and Nelson, two other former National Hockey League players call Warroad home: Henry Boucha, who played in the 1972 games, and Alan Hangsleben.
In total, the small community claims nine players of Olympic or NHL fame. But of course, love for the game starts young. Warroad High School has won four boys’ state tournament titles, most recently in 2005, and two girls’ championships, back-to-back in 2010 and 2011. Several of their young players have gone on to compete at the collegiate level, including Brock’s sister, Billye, who played at Hamline University in Saint Paul.
“It’s a very special place; it’s definitely passionate about hockey,” Brock said. “It starts at a young age. Kids are able to skate all the time, whether it’s indoors or outdoors — it’s quite the place for only 1,700 people. The passion they have for hockey is incredible.”
So, when Brock showed a keen interest for the sport at such a young age, the Nelsons decided that if they were going to dedicate their time to hockey, the best place to do it was in Warroad. At the age of 4, Brock moved from the Twin Cities to Hockeytown USA, the root of his family and hockey DNA, and truly began his journey with the sport.
“It's what everybody does,” Jeri said. “Having three kids play, we spent many, many hours at the arena. It's always a good place to be … It's the live, eat, sleep, hockey thing — they really do.”
While it may be something in the water, with it’s location on Lake of the Woods and Warroad River coursing through it, hockey is simply a natural way of life for the town.
“I don’t know what the secret is, I wish we knew,” Brock said. “It’s good to see that and have kids that go on and play after high school. Most of the kids in Warroad play hockey, but compared to other cities, the numbers aren’t there. But to have the production that it’s had, I think it just goes to show you that being there and the hockey environment — being able to skate and play all day — it goes a long ways for developing passion for the game. I think many kids have grown over the years, being able to be successful.”
“I compare it to the perfect storm,” his mom added. “You have hockey genes, a supportive community, the support of the family, and you’ve got the desire. They made it possible for him to skate as much as he wanted to skate and be at the rink as much as he wanted to be. It all works together.”
Finding ice was never an issue. Between open skate and the outdoors, Nelson’s love for the game only continued to grow. That constant access to ice allowed him to hone his skills and inspired him to work hard to develop his game.
Naturally being near so much water, playing outdoors was a constant in Warroad. For Nelson, that’s where it all started.
“I remember when I was younger, at Christmas we’d just be out on the river at my Grandpa’s and we’d skate for a couple of hours and have a fire to warm up when our toes were frozen,” Brock said. “It just brings the memories of having fun and not worrying about anything else, not trying to look at the big picture of it, just trying to enjoy the small moments. I think that helps.”
While it's been five years since he's donned the black and yellow, Nelson still follows the Warroad team during the season -- particularly last year when his younger brother, Blayke, was a senior.
Warroad helped nurture Nelson’s love for hockey, but before he could dream of making it to the NHL, he needed more time to develop. So he followed yet another family pursuit: he played college hockey at the University of North Dakota, where his uncle Dave played from 1977-79.
Donning the kelly green and white from 2010-12, Nelson played in all 42 games each season, amassing 68 points — including a team-leading 47 points in the 2011-12 season. His offensive production in that second season with UND was buoyed by a team-leading 28 goals.
Following his sophomore season, he signed a contract with the New York Islanders, who selected him in the first round (30th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. After some time in the American Hockey League with the Islanders affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Nelson made his NHL debut in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Pittsburgh on May 11, 2013.
Two seasons later, the 23-year-old has been an integral component of the Islanders lineup, posting a breakout season so far in 2014-15. Skating alongside some of the NHL’s top guns — John Tavares and Saint Paul’s Kyle Okposo — Nelson admitted he sometimes gets caught up in the moment and watches them a little too much. Still, he led the team in goals through the Christmas break.
“I definitely wanted to come in and contribute and I knew last year was a good step in the right direction in terms of learning the game and growing,” Brock said. “You can never stop learning or continuing to develop your skills, whether it’s physically or mentally. It’s a challenging game and a long season. I’m happy with where I’m at now.”
Certainly, a stronger year both individually and as a team make watching the Islanders a little more fun for the folks back in Warroad.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Jeri said. “It's fun to watch him all the time no matter what. But it's even more fun, of course, when you're having a winning season and everything falls into place. It just makes it that much better.”
Nelson is also just one of four Minnesotans on the Isles roster. Joining him are Okposo, Anders Lee, of Edina, and Nick Leddy, who hails from Eden Prairie. Making the move from 1,700-plus Warroad, to the city of Grand Forks, and finally the vastly more populated Long Island, a little Minnesota flavor has certainly helped ease the transition.
But when it comes right down to it — no matter where he’s playing or may end up playing in the future — Jeri is simply happy that all the hard work is paying off, that he’s thriving at the the game he’s loved since he could speak.
“It's fun for me, just because I've always known that that's what he's wanted to do,” Jeri said. “And he's always had the drive and desire to do it. Just watching him work hard for it — never underestimating himself and believing that he can and never, never thinking that he couldn't do it or couldn't be there. It's just really fun.”