The timing couldn’t have been worse. Nick Niedert’s phone rang on Friday afternoon and on the other end was the ECHL’s Reading Royals in need of an emergency goaltender after Austin Lotz was called up to AHL Lehigh Valley.
Niedert, who lives in Connecticut, quickly mapped out the trek in his head. A typical three-to-four hour drive to Reading, Pennsylvania would have taken him much longer on Black Friday when you factor in all the traffic he would likely experience. It was clearly a no-go.
But the Royals’ goaltending situation was in such flux that Niedert, 36, was still planning to be the team’s emergency backup for their Saturday night game in Glens Falls, New York against the Adirondack Thunder. As he was driving to the game his phone rang once again around 3 p.m. Reading’s assistant coach Mike Marcou was calling from the coaches office at Cool Insuring Arena and was kind of dancing around the reason for dialing. Eventually, Niedert asked what was going on.
“Well, you’re going tonight,” Marcou told him.
“Going where?” Niedert replied before it finally hit him after a beat. “Oh s—-. Alright. Let’s go.”
“You ready to go?” Marcou followed up.
Said Niedert: “Does it really matter?”
Royals goaltender Angus Redmond suffered a concussion, so the organization’s depth chart in net was depleted. In stepped Niedert, who went from EBUG to starter in a matter of a few hours. Backing him up was another EBUG that the team was able to grab before game time.
The pressure of the moment didn’t get to Niedert as he watched from his crease his teammates playing their hearts out, galvanized by their current predicament.
“You know what, it’s so cliche, it really is, but let me tell you when I say the guys played their balls off. Those guys… they threw everything out there,” Niedert told Pro Hockey Talk on Sunday. “They were phenomenal.”
A night after losing 8-3 to Adirondack, the Royals rebounded, thanks to Niedert’s 38 saves, for a 2-1 victory. It certainly wasn’t an easy one as the Thunder had six power plays, but couldn’t capitalize.
“The buy-in was absolutely remarkable,” Niedert said. “Honestly, in 15 years I’ve played over 300-something games, that was the most impressive, complete game I’ve ever seen in my career.”
As the final buzzer sounded and the Royals celebrated a victory, you could see how much Niedert’s performance meant to the team. A night earlier they suffered a big loss and then had to hop on a bus for five hours with that defeat still fresh in their minds. Factor in their goaltending situation and it wasn’t an easy lead up to Saturday’s rematch.
For Niedert, who’s gotten used to watching games from the bench as a legendary minor league EBUG, it was a satisfying experience considering it had been 1,032 days since his last ECHL start.
“When you’re on the team, you’re a part of it,” he said. “But when you’re on the ice contributing, there’s a big difference. It feels a helluva lot better.”
That last start in the ECHL with the Royals — Jan. 27, 2016, a 7-5 win over Elmira — left Niedert with a bad taste in his mouth. His wasn’t happy with his performance that night and it stayed with him.
“That was a nightmare. I was so disappointed with the way everything went that day,” he said. “It’s almost like it didn’t count. It was just an unsatisfied feeling.”
That’s why when the buzzer sounded Saturday night and the Royals had sealed a win, it left Niedert in a different place. The reason why he keeps answering the phone whenever teams call is because of what transpired in Glens Falls.
“There’s no better feeling than being on the ice when the horn blows and the win,” he said. “When the rink’s pitch black and you’re leading your team on the ice, there’s nothing like it. There really isn’t.
“To play in a meaningful game in a National Hockey League affiliated league at this age… I’m 5-foot-8 from Iowa. It’s not exactly a hockey hotbed. I’ve been on borrowed time since I was 16 years old when I left home. All the stuff that I went through in my very, very, very extremely long career, it really was worth it [Saturday] night to see what the 17 other guys had to go through to get a win. … When you see guys getting banged up and you see guys getting the ice bags and you see guys fighting through being hurt, guys that are battling through everything, I want to be there for those guys, too.”
Niedert’s never gotten close to the NHL during his long career. Aside from a few AHL tryout contracts and EBUG situations, no invitation has been sent his way for a main training camp in either league. He’s been everywhere, seen everything. He’s been around so long that now former teammates and opponents have become members of opposing coaching staffs.
“It was really worth it. All the things that I went through coming up to [Saturday] night, all that stuff didn’t matter,” he said. “All those week-to-week paychecks, hoping your check doesn’t bounce, playing in front of 150 people some nights, all that was not even relevant. I was happy to do it. I was happy when that damn horn blew, I couldn’t play any longer. It was a helluva night and I’m beyond happy I had the opportunity to do that.”
Call up Niedert’s profile page on HockeyDB.com or EliteProspects.com and your mouse will get a decent workout from all the scrolling you’ll have to do. In his 15 years as a professional, the Hudson, Iowa native has played or dressed for 36 teams in 11 different leagues.
Those numbers, however, are unofficial, something that Niedert says may make him one day sit down and sort through game logs for an true tally. He does estimate he’s dressed for somewhere between 700-800 games in his career.
Want an idea of the hectic life Niedert once led when he was a regular dial-a-goalie?
Here’s a sample of one week during the 2011-12 season:
Tuesday: Sent down from ECHL Elmira (NY) to FHL Danbury (CT). Picked up on waivers by ECHL Wheeling (West Va.)
Wednesday: Drive from Danbury back to Elmira for Wheeling road game. After pre-game skate, informed he was called up to AHL Bridgeport (CT). Drove back to Danbury for Thursday practice with Bridgeport.
Thursday: Practice with Bridgeport. Drive to Albany (NY) for game.
Friday: Play in Albany. Get sent back down to Wheeling, who were playing in Cincinnati (OH) on Saturday night.
Saturday: Travel to Cincinnati. Serve as EBUG.
Sunday: Play game. Travel back to Danbury.
That emotional roller coaster led Niedert to ask himself if it was really worth it to continue. But again, the phone kept ringing and he kept answering and grabbing his pads.
The ups and downs he’s experienced during a life in the minors has taught Niedert about resiliency and battling adversity, qualities needed in order to last as long as he has in the game.
The thought of retiring has crossed Niedert’s mind before, sometimes on those long car rides home. And while he’s worked as a manager at the Brookfield, Connecticut Wesco Sports Center since 2010, he keeps answering the phone when teams call, knowing his has very understanding co-workers.
The phone keeps ringing because his reputation follows him at every single stop. Coaches know what they’re going to get. No matter how long he sticks with a team, he’s never going to change. He’ll support his teammates. He’ll stick tap a player who dropped to block a shot. He’ll be positive. He’ll show up early and be the last one off the ice.
There was a time when goalies of Niedert’s size were all the rage: small and quick. Now, bigger goalies are much more athletic and have become the norm around the game.
“All I honestly have is my compete level. My skill set is not even close to these other guys,” he said. “Not even close. I’ll be honest, I’ll tell people that all the time.
“I just work. That’s all. That’s literally all I have in my bag, is just go out, give an effort, don’t be a s——- team guy, and see what happens.”
Down the line, when Niedert finally stops picking up that ringing phone, he’d like to get into coaching — junior hockey, specifically — in order to make an impact on young players’ lives. He doesn’t envision himself as a head coach, but feels more suited in the role of an assistant, that middle-ground guy who can be the liaison between the head coach and players.
He’s back working at Wesco — he put in a full shift on Sunday afternoon after arriving back from Glens Falls — and waiting for his next call. Reading head coach Kirk McDonald told him he’d get in touch if the team needed him again. In the meantime, he plays in a pro/am league once a week to keep sharp and works out regularly in case another EBUG situation pops up.
If he wanted to be like George Costanza he could go out on top, which very well could be the case. That next opportunity could come at any time and he’ll be ready to answer the call, if needed. If it doesn’t, Saturday night’s experience put Niedert at peace.
“If that was it — perfect,” he said.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.