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A Warrior For Life

Warroad will always be home for Brock Nelson

(Photo by Jeff Wegge)

Warroad will always be home for Brock Nelson

Brock Nelson likes to head back to Warroad whenever he gets a chance.

Even though he now lives in the Twin Cities when he’s not playing for the New York Islanders, Warroad will always be home.

“My parents are still up there, so I try to go back up there a few times, hang out with them, check it out, see everybody back in town,” he said the other day.

From his place in Wayzata to Warroad six hours away is no quick drive, he admitted.

“It’s a long one, but it goes by quick,” Nelson said during the Islanders’ lone stop of the season in St. Paul to play the Wild in October. “You have your pit stops along the way. I see some family in Bemidji to break it up, and once you start to get up where there’s a lot of space between towns, I start reminiscing about the drives and hockey games here and there. Then you pass through Baudette and I’m home.”


Nelson, who turned 26 on Oct. 15, is well known as a product of Warroad who played in the state tournament for the high school team and later at the University of North Dakota before turning pro. Not so well known is the fact that he was born in Minneapolis and first laced on skates at about age 2 when the family lived in New Brighton. His mom took him to the Roseville Oval to skate, and found a kid hockey team in the Centennial system where Brock could get some very early game action.

The family soon moved back to Warroad, the hockey hotbed of less than 1,800 where Brock’s grandfather, Billy Christian, joined brother Roger to launch the Christian Brothers hockey stick company in 1964 — four years after the two helped the United States win a gold medal in the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Brock remembers growing up playing pond hockey on shoveled patches of the Warroad River and finding ice time at the Warroad Gardens or at the outdoor rink adjacent to the arena,as well as working and hanging out at the stick factory, amid half-made or freshly sawed wooden sticks.

“I still remember the smell,” he recalled with a smile. “It brings back a lot of good memories.”

The NHL in those early days was not even on his radar.

“When you’re that young, you’re just out having fun, playing with the boys you grew up with,” he said.

(Photo by Jeff Wegge)

That changed during his trips with Warroad to the state high school hockey tournament, and Nelson was picked 30th overall by the Islanders in the 2010 draft. He became a regular with the Islanders three years later, and through 10 games this season he had 85 goals in 328 NHL games.

“For a Minnesota kid,” Islanders coach Doug Weight said with a laugh in St. Paul, “he’s doing pretty well.”

Start with Nelson’s exceptional defensive play as a centerman, Weight noted. “And sees the game really well.” Issuing one of a coach’s ultimate compliments, Weight added: “I trust him.”

Nelson reached the NHL via Warroad.

“Thinking back to those days, a long road,” he said. “A lot of people helped along the way, and obviously I was blessed to have a couple of family members before me kind of set the path.”

For sure.

Great uncle Gordon Christian played on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal. Then came Roger and Billy collecting gold four years later.

“I skated a lot with my grandpa when I was younger,” Brock recalled.

Billy’s son, who is Brock’s uncle David, was of course a key ingredient on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that famously won gold in the Miracle on Ice. David Christian went on to a successful NHL career, and he and his nephew still talk hockey whenever they get the chance.

Brock not only has hockey in his blood, he has hockey in his name: Brock Christian Nelson.

With Minnesota also in his background, the 6-foot-3 Nelson relishes trips to St. Paul for games against the Wild.

“It’s fun just being so close to home and having all the family come down and watch you, maybe you don’t get to see them throughout the year,” he said before the game in St. Paul. “It’s definitely special to hang out with them; I got to see some family last night and I’ll get to see some after.

“It’s always fun to come back here and play hard and kind of show them what, over the years, they’ve helped me accomplish.”

It started as a youth in Warroad, a period he labeled “awesome” because of the place’s camaraderie, positivity and spirit. “The whole town surrounds you, watches all the games. It’s just something that’s part of the heritage and the background there.”

And, for Nelson and T.J. Oshie of the Washington Caps, Warroad’s other NHL player, Warroad will always be home.

BB covered sports for the Minneapolis Tribune for 13 years and for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for 20 years following stints at the International Falls Daily Journal and the Duluth News-Tribune. He was on the Wild beat as well as Gophers men's and women's hockey at the Pioneer Press. He lives in Minneapolis. Follow Bruce on Twitter @RealBBrothers

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