Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and Duluth Marshall met in the Section 7A girls hockey semifinals late one Saturday night in February 2019. It was a long bus ride home from Virginia after the Lumberjacks fell 1-0.
The tears barely had time to dry when Taylor Nelson was leading the team the following Monday. Never mind that the season was already over. The Lumberjacks had ice time and Nelson was going to make sure they used it.
That captains’ practice set the tone for this winter, a magical season in which Cloquet-Esko-Carlton (27-4) set a school record for wins and advanced to the Class A title game, with Nelson, a Carlton senior, once again leading the way. The 2020 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year finished with a Northland-best 47 goals and 32 assists for 79 points.
The unassuming Nelson handled the praise in much the same way she handles everything else. Accolades slide off her like Teflon and are directed back at her teammates, a true captain in every sense of the word.
“It’s an honor, it’s awesome. I honestly wasn’t expecting that,” Nelson said upon hearing the news Wednesday night. “This season was the greatest season I’ve ever been a part of, and I couldn’t have done it without my teammates.”
While that may come across as cliche, Nelson was consistent throughout the Lumberjacks’ playoff run, always complimenting her teammates. It was the same way she handled the surprise at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul after she was named the Class A recipient of the Herb Brooks Award, “given to the most qualified player in the state tournament who strongly represents the values, characteristics, and traits” that defined the legendary coach.
That’s high praise but par for the course when talking about Nelson. Her coach, Courtney Olin, gushes when talking about her star player. She can’t talk enough about her. Special players, special people like this, don’t come around often.
“Taylor is the hardest worker and one of the most dedicated athletes I’ve ever coached or been around,” Olin said. “She goes above and beyond any expectations. She’s just a great person on and off the ice. She is more than deserving of everything that has come her way. She’s earned her way to all that success, just because of her work ethic and all the time she’s put in.”
Olin said she talked with the other CEC coaches and they couldn’t recall one day — not even one — where Nelson missed a summer camp or practice unless she was participating in another sport.
“To have that kind of dedication from an athlete is almost unheard of,” Olin said.
Nelson, a Bemidji State recruit and 4.0 student, helped form the Northland’s highest scoring line with best friend and fellow All-Area first-team selection Kiana Bender, of Cloquet, and center Dea DeLeon, of Esko. It was a true CEC line of seniors representing all three communities.
The 5-foot-4 Nelson has also excelled as an outside hitter in volleyball and center fielder in softball, but hockey is her favorite. She remains hopeful she will get a final spring season. With school out because of the coronavirus outbreak, Nelson has kept busy cleaning, walking the dogs, watching Netflix and painting.
In hockey, Nelson has great speed and can snipe it, as evidenced by a wicked slap shot she launched from beyond the blue line and into the net during the state tournament. It was about as good as it gets.
“I had done that in practice before but never a game,” Nelson said. “Super exciting.”
Nelson and Bender, both five-year starters, have known each since they played squirts together. Bender said they hit it off right away because they had so much in common. They had older brothers who helped toughen them up. Nelson laughed thinking back to those times, when they didn’t just compete against the boys, they “sometimes embarrassed them.” The girls have become nearly inseparable.
Nelson and Bender both passed Sadie Lundquist’s school record for career points this season. Nelson is now the all-time leader among CEC boys and girls with 223 career points on 123 goals and 100 assists. Her point production increased every year from 24 as an eighth-grader to 55 last season and now 79 as a senior.
“My goal was always to play beyond; ever since I was little I wanted to play college hockey,” Nelson said. “So I always had that drive to push myself even harder than I did the year before, and this year was another mentality thing, as well. This was my last year, so let’s go and put everything out there, and I did that every day in practice, and my teammates did, as well, and it really showed off.”
While Nelson might appear perfect, the road it took to get here hasn’t always been. Bender was at Nelson’s home in July 2013 watching tragedy unfold as news broke that Nelson’s father, Todd, had been killed in a car accident.
“It was just heartbreaking to watch her go through that,” Bender said. “Over the years I’ve just tried to give her as much support as I can.”
Todd Nelson wasn’t the type to steer Taylor into playing hockey. She began playing when she was four or five because her older brothers played, but he latched onto the fact she did. He was her biggest fan, very loud and outgoing. He was funny and liked joking with the kids.
“He was awesome,” Nelson said.
While Todd Nelson never saw his daughter play varsity hockey, the former U.S. Army soldier certainly helped instill what it took to be successful: hard work, determination and discipline.
“He would have been proud of her, that’s for sure, but surprised, I don’t know,” Bender said. “I think he always knew his daughter could do that.”