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Roller Coaster Ride

Multiple injuries didn’t derail Jamie Nelson’s college career.

Jamie Nelson strives to be a go-to player for the Mavericks. She leads the team in scoring this season. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota State University, Mankato)

College hockey players usually have some little ups and downs over the course of their careers, but Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Jamie Nelson has had more of a roller coaster than others.

A little more than three years ago, Nelson was coming off a senior season where she capped off her high school career at Andover by finishing with a school record 219 career points and a 2020 Class 2A state title. In a recent interview, Nelson said it was the culture around the Huskies program that was the key to winning it all her final year.

Jamie Nelson (center) fist bumps teammate Elisebeth Tammi at Xcel Energy Center in the 2020 girls state hockey tournament. (MHM Photo / Tim Kolehmainen)

“I will never stop preaching about the culture that we had my senior year or all four years in high school, but that senior year team was something special,” she said. “Even now, we have a ton of those players in the WCHA and whenever we play each other or see each other, it’s like no time has passed. We pick up right where we left off and I can honestly say that some of those players are my lifetime friends.

“I just think that the culture we built there and the camaraderie that we had contributed to our success.”

That level of individual success continued during Nelson’s freshman season in Mankato where she made the WCHA All-Rookie Team and won the WCHA Rookie of the Year, the first in MSU history. When asked if he expected Nelson to play that well out of the gates, Mavericks head coach John Harrington said, “probably not.”

“We thought she’d be able to contribute to our team right away, but it’s tough when coming out of high school,” he said. “High school girls coming into Division I hockey is a big jump, and sometimes it takes a while for them to not only mature their game, but just to mature generally to be effective players.

“Again, it’s one thing to have the skills and everything, but as you move up levels and move into college, everybody has those skills. But if you have the ability to think the game really well, it’s a little easier to make the adjustment and I think that’s what Jamie does well. She can think the game really well.”

Nelson credited something else to that success and that was COVID-19. While the pandemic raged around the world, she got to physically and mentally focus on enhancing her individual skills as a player in private.

“I had a ton of confidence, and I’ll actually give a lot of that credit to COVID,” Nelson said. “It kind of allowed me to take a step back, and I didn’t have any other responsibilities. So, every day I was out in my garage shooting pucks, stickhandling and just working on those skills that maybe I wouldn’t have enough time for with a busy school schedule or spring sports.

“So, I was actually very thankful for COVID; a lot of people won’t agree with me. But I was trying to use that time to get better, and once I got into college, I felt like I was super confident in my game and my abilities. I just think that I spent a ton of time on myself going into college that allowed me to step into a major role here at Mankato.”

Injury bug bites
Things started off well for Nelson at MSU, but then things went downhill during her sophomore season as she tore her posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in her left knee and after returning to the roster later that year, she ended up reinjuring her knee.

“Initially, it was supposed to be two months, and I actually went to get cleared and I went straight from the doctor’s office to practice,” she said. “The first drill, I fell on it again, reinjured it, and it turned into a six-month recovery. So, that was pretty discouraging, but I feel better than ever right now. So, I’m almost thankful for another year on top of COVID.”

After only playing in two games during her second season with the Mavericks, Nelson got back on track during her junior year statistically as she led the team in assists (22) and in points (27). She also played for the U.S. Collegiate Select Team in the Collegiate Series against Canada in August 2022, notching two assists in Game two.

“I’d never put a USA jersey on before and some of the girls on the team, they’d been there since U18s,” she said. “But that was my first opportunity, and it was indescribable. I had a lot of pride representing Mankato and the U.S. With my injury, I experienced a really low, low, and then I experienced a really high, high coming back from that. So, I think it made that experience even better knowing where it came from to get to that point.”

As much of a high as that was, Nelson experienced another low as she was injured during the third game of the Collegiate Series and had to deal with another two-month recovery. All in all, she’s dealt with a torn PCL in her left knee, a medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain in her right knee and an acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation in her shoulder.

With a laugh, Nelson said she’s got “one good limb left.”

Jamie Nelson, who has two years of eligibility left with Minnesota State, is thankful to be out on the ice after coming back from multiple injuries. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota State University, Mankato)

Some athletes might have a hard time recovering from all those injuries, but Nelson said she found a personal trainer that helped get her to 100% and that she feels even better than before her injuries. She also doesn’t take for granted any time that she gets on the ice.

“I think I’m just thankful to be out there every day and having to sit on the sidelines for an entire year, I was just happy to be out there,” she said. “I think when I put too much pressure on myself, I underperform. But when I’m out there just trying to have fun and being thankful for the opportunity, I play my best hockey. I felt really good having the entire summer to train and get back to full strength. So, I was able to gain that confidence back in myself.”

Nelson’s senior season (she has two more years of eligibility left) is off to a solid start as she leads the Mavericks with eight goals and 11 points. She also scored the overtime winning goal against Bemidji State on Saturday and two tallies the night before. Even though Mankato is off to a rough start at 3-10, Nelson feels positive about her team and is striving to be the go-to player on the roster this year.

“My goals are just to be a leader for the team and right now, we’re in a little bit of a slump, but I want to be that person on the team that can give us confidence and almost like a contagious belief in ourselves that we can beat anyone in our league and anyone in the country,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of confidence, but I play on our power play and our penalty kill, I get major minutes. So, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and as a senior, I just want to show the younger girls that every game we play is a fight, but we can win any game in this league.

“We just have to show up and play to the best of our abilities. I think the biggest thing that will lead to our success is trusting in each other and ourselves and just believing that we can do it. I do think that belief is contagious and if they can see it from me, then maybe they can follow in my steps.”

Ryan started to enjoy hockey as a kid when he started playing roller hockey with his friends in their respective driveways. However, his enthusiasm started to grow more when the Minnesota Wild had their inaugural season in 2000 and fully blossomed when he was at the University of North Dakota and he started attending Fighting Sioux (now Fighting Hawks) games on a regular basis. He's a former sports writer for three previous newspapers, most recently with the Mining Journal in Marquette, Michigan, where he covered Northern Michigan hockey for seven years. He currently does freelance work as a sports reporter, operates his own hockey blog, www.thetripledeke.com, and is on a college hockey podcast called MNCAA. He also continues to watch and follow the Wild, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Vikings and college hockey. You can follow him on Twitter/X @ryanstieg.

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