Newcomers Bates, Nelson Rise to Prominence on UW Hockey Club
Jake Bates and Mitch Nelson don't share many similarities.
They grew up in vastly different places in Wyoming.
Bates is an engineering major; Nelson a history major.
One began skating at age 3; the other didn't even play ice hockey until high school.
One is an offensive-minded player whose sole mission is to put the puck on net; the other is more concerned with preventing goals than scoring them.
But, Bates and Nelson have one important commonality: Both have emerged -- in a matter of just a few games -- as key players for the University of Wyoming hockey club.
"We've had quite a few of the young guys step up and earn their spots, and Jake and Mitch are at the top of that list," says Cowboys Coach Shawn Rockey. "Both of those guys are difference-makers for us and I think they've shown in a short period of time that they are going to important to our success this season.
"There's no doubt that they make us a better team."
Bates and Nelson played starring roles in UW's two-game series last weekend at Mesa State College, combining for four goals and four assists as the Cowboys swept the Mavericks, one of their rivals in the Pacific Region of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).
As UW prepares for faceoffs against Colorado State University (Thursday) and Colorado School of Mines (Friday), Nelson is tied for the team lead with four goals and eight points and Bates is tied for second on the club with four assists.
It's not a surprise to Nelson that he's contributing in a major way for the Cowboys, who have won five of their first seven games in their quest to return to the ACHA National Tournament for the first time in four years.
"I came here with the expectation that I would be one of the top-line players," says Nelson.
Which brings us to another difference between the two players: Bates wasn't sure he'd even make the cut.
"When I went to tryouts," he says with a chuckle, "I honestly just wanted to make the team and prove that I could skate at this level."
Not only did Bates prove himself, he made a name for himself. After just two practices, Rockey and several of Bates' teammates had already labeled him the team's top defenseman.
On the ice, Bates blends refined skating skills with a tremendous knowledge of the game and an intuition that simply cannot be coached.
"His ice awareness is just so impressive," Rockey says. "Every play, he does everything right. He's that solid. He never ceases to amaze me, really. It's just awesome to watch him play."
While his main job is to stunt the opposing teams' chances of scoring goals, Bates has a knack for creating offense of his own, too. He has scored two goals this season; UW's top goal-scoring defenseman last season had but four goals in 24 games.
"He rushes the puck and he's so smart when he does it," says Rockey. "When he chooses to go, it's the right time to go. He makes things happen at the blue line, and that's not something all defensemen can do."
Bates credits Steve Little, a family friend who encouraged his parents to introduce him to skating as a toddler and later served as his youth coach in Jackson, and Hunter Boldt, his coach in the Wyoming Amateur Hockey League (WAHL), the state's premier youth hockey organization with teams in 13 towns.
"At this point in my hockey career, it's pretty much all instincts for me," says Bates. "It's really just become second nature to me, and I think that's because of all the great coaching I got as I was growing up and learning the game."
Nelson's background is considerably different.
While growing up in Sheridan, Nelson played roller hockey until he was recruited during his teenage years to lace up skates for the first time. The speed and contact of ice hockey immediately captured his interest and, by his second season in the WAHL, Nelson says he was certain he had the talent to excel in the sport.
"I improved a lot -- and really fast -- and that's when I knew I wanted to keep playing," he says.
Last season, Nelson scored seven goals and added nine assists for the Yellowstone Quake, the only Junior A hockey program in the Cowboy State. Nationally, Junior A hockey features up-and-coming players including future college and professional players ages 16-20.
"He has talent, speed and good hands, and that's why he's playing on our first line," says Rockey. "He's not a force, physically, but he's definitely a force as an offensive weapon. He's stepped right in and made a name for himself."
Posted on Tuesday, October 27, 2009