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Prep Watch: National attraction

Cristoval Nieves plans on going the college route with his career. (Photo courtesy Rafael Nieves)

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Cristoval Nieves plans on going the college route with his career. (Photo courtesy Rafael Nieves)

When fans of the Syracuse Jr. Nationals under-16 team yell “Boo,” they’re not necessarily upset.

In fact, when center Cristoval ‘Boo’ Nieves is on the puck, it’s usually a cause for celebration.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound 15-year-old is one of the leading offensive threats on the Nationals and Syracuse coach Steve Cibelli sees bright things in the young pivot’s future.

“When he wants to, he can take a game over,” Cibelli said. “He’s got that rare combination of great feet, great acceleration, great hands and that incredible level of hockey IQ that is hard to teach.”

One of the more intriguing aspects of Nieves is the fact he’s not even done growing yet; Cibelli thinks he’ll spring up a couple more inches and eventually settle in around 6-foot-4.
 
Considering Nieves is known as a devastating playmaker, you’d think he could be a Joe Thornton-type player, but the kid from Syracuse prefers an east coast star.

“Probably Zach Parise,” said Nieves when asked of his NHL role model.

Coming up through the Nationals system has given Nieves a lot of continuity in his hockey career, as he’s in his sixth year playing for Cibelli.

“Most of our team has been together for a while,” Nieves said, “so it’s really fun.”

Nieves also has a highly coveted teammate in goaltender Dalton Izyk and Cibelli believes the Nationals’ strategy of emphasizing practice time over game time has had a positive effect.

The coach also noted that ice time in the area is remarkably inexpensive and available, which has been a boon for developing players such as Nieves.

And while his size, shot and speed are all intimidating, ‘Boo’ (a longstanding family nickname) knows what he needs to work on as he progresses.

“I tend to pass too much,” he said. “And I need to keep finishing my checks.”

It’s the first element of that equation his coach is focusing on. Cibelli said there’s a running joke on the team during practice that if Nieves doesn’t take 40 shots, the whole team does push-ups or extra laps of the rink.

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“We want him to shoot the puck more,” Cibelli said. “He’s a consummate playmaker, almost to a fault.”

Thankfully, Cibelli has a good student in Nieves, not to mention a young man who knows how to manage the mental aspect of high-level hockey.

“He understands how to put the game in perspective,” Cibelli revealed. “He can compartmentalize. When the game is over, he’s able to re-assimilate as a 15-year-old.”

One of the reasons Nieves can do that is due to his other big interest, music.

The center’s hands aren’t just slick with the puck, but also with a guitar and a set of drum sticks. Despite his age, he favors older rock acts such as The Who and Boston.

“A lot of my friends played it, so I figured ‘why not?’ ” he said.

Having that downtime hobby is key to Nieves’ sense of balance.

“It is really nice,” he said. “It is a lot of pressure on me sometimes, so it’s great to come home and play drums, or sit around with the guitar.”

At the next level, Nieves hopes to be making sweet music in Ann Arbor, Mich., with Team USA’s national team development program. In the long run, Nieves decided with his family the NCAA route would suit him best.

“There’s really no question that I’m going to college,” he noted.

They’ll love his hands there – but whether he can fit a drum kit in his dorm room is another question altogether.

Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every second Thursday throughout the season.

For more great prospect profiles and news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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