MINNEAPOLIS — The three non-metro Minnesotans on the Minnesota Gophers hockey roster have been lovingly dubbed “the farm boys” by their teammates. This, despite the fact that Ben Meyers, from Delano, and Blake McLaughlin, from Grand Rapids, aren’t truly familiar with the ways of agrarian life.
For freshman forward Jaxon Nelson, the moniker could hardly be more fitting.
Nelson is getting used to life in the big city, and the ways of college hockey, after spending his formative years on a 3,000-acre corn, soybean and cattle farm outside Magnolia, Minn. (estimated population, 214).
“Even after hockey season I try to go back and help the family as much as I can, feeding the cows, putting bedding in for the cows, checking pastures in the summer,” Nelson said after a recent Gophers practice in Minneapolis. True to his roots in the rolling hills and farmland of Minnesota’s southwestern corner, Nelson can often be found fishing or pheasant hunting when the chores are done.
Nelson was a bit of a mystery man when he arrived on campus in the fall. Known far and wide for two unique traits — his 6-foot-4 frame, and for being the first Gopher the Luverne High School program has produced — he committed to the U of M and former coach Don Lucia nearly five years ago, at the end of his freshman season of high school hockey. As an eighth-grader he was a member of Luverne’s first state tournament team, which came to St. Paul undefeated and fell to Hermantown in the first round.
That was before his growth spurt hit, allowing Nelson to tower over many opponents, and before he would spend three years in the United States Hockey League, first with Sioux Falls and then with Omaha last season. With the Gophers’ coaching change from Lucia to Bob Motzko, there was some question whether Nelson would ever arrive at the U of M. But Motzko took advice from former Colorado College coach Scott Owens, who was Nelson’s coach at Sioux Falls. This fall Motzko welcomed Nelson to the program, and likes what he has seen so far.
“If there’s been a surprise for us this year, he’s got to be a big one,” Motzko said. “Then when you take a step back and know that he’s got a great track record as a young player, three years in the USHL, and a good friend of mine down there saying ‘this kid’s going to be a pretty good player.’ And he’s going to be a pretty good player.”
Nelson was a healthy scratch for the Gophers’ first two games of the season. Since then, his game and his responsibility is seemingly growing by the week, from a spot on the fourth line, to a regular role on the penalty kill, to even seeing some time on the power play in last weekend’s sweep of Ohio State.
“He’s a really good locker room guy too,” said fellow freshman Bryce Brodzinski, who was a teammate of Nelson’s for a few games in Omaha last season, and has recently been Nelson’s right wing on a line with Nathan Burke on the left. “A lot of guys really love him and that’s something that plays into it. Guys trust him because he’s a farm boy. You always trust him to get the job done.”
Nelson’s most common way of getting the job done involves using his body to muscle opponents off the puck, and using a booming shot to get the puck to the net. Hit hard by a 10-day bout with influenza after the holiday break, Nelson missed the team’s series at Michigan State, but came back to score a crazy game-winning goal in last Friday’s 6-3 triumph over the Buckeyes. With the Gophers up 3-2 and in desperate need of an insurance goal, a hard shot by Nelson went over the net and hit the glass behind Ohio State goalie Tommy Nappier. Then the puck rebounded back into the crease, landed on the goalie’s back, and Nappier backed up into the net, carrying the puck over the goal line. It was an example of good puck luck, but also the kinds of plays that come from hard work, of which Nelson has displayed plenty, not only on the rink, but down on the farm as well.
“He has one major flaw. He has no idea how good he can be,” Motzko said. “And if that day wakes up, look out. This kid’s going to be a pretty good hockey player.”
Among the Gophers’ “farm boys,” Nelson is the real deal.
“He’s a legit farm boy,” Brodzinski said. “We always make fun of him and say he’s going to drive his tractor to the rink. He loves it.”