Feb. 8, 2011
By Larry Watts
Trying to break into baseball, basketball or football would have been much simpler. But being an African-American man trying to break into the sport of ice hockey was taking pro aspirations to a whole new level.
That was the quest of former University of Wisconsin standout defenseman Chris Nelson. Although he never reached his goals of becoming the first African-American player to play in the National Hockey League and to play in the Olympics, he still managed to put together a solid career both on the ice and on roller blades before finally deciding to head in another direction.
“We’re talking 1987 when I set those goals,’’ says Nelson, who is now the Director of Guest Relations for the W Hotel in Hollywood. “It’s like kids saying they want to be firemen when they grow up. We all have our goals, hopes and wishes, but life often takes you in a different direction. It would have been nice (to play in the NHL), but that’s sports.
“Everything I’ve done in my life, I don’t regret one decision I’ve made. Hockey afforded me an array of experiences I would never have received if I hadn’t played the sport. I was on the U.S. national team in roller hockey, won two world championships (1997 and 2004), traveled the world and helped out (technical advisor) with “Miracle,’’ which was the ESPY movie of the year in 2004.’’
Yet, with all the travel and acclaim he has received at the professional level, the one thing that stands above it all is being a key defenseman as a sophomore for the Badgers when they won the NCAA title in 1990. Wisconsin came back in his senior year to take runner-up honors.
“If I could do it all over again, I would do it the exact same way,’’ says the 42-year-old. “I had offers from Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Bowling Green, Boston University and Boston College.
“But the minute I walked into (Wisconsin’s) Dane County Coliseum, I knew this was the place where I wanted to play. Wisconsin had just scored a goal and the place went crazy. I figured if this is the way Wisconsin fans were, there was never any way I was going to play against them.’’
A starter right from his freshman year, Nelson wound up scoring 11 goals and producing 31 assists in his career. His freshman season was limited to only 21 games because he separated both shoulders in one game early in the season.
“They were minor separations, but there isn’t much you can do when both shoulders aren’t working properly,’’ he says. “Handling a stick wasn’t as much of a problem as trying to hold an opponent against the boards, but it’s all part of being an athlete and what we have to go through.’’
Winning the NCAA title during his second year is something Nelson will never forget.
“Winning a national title for your school, especially in a town like Madison, nothing will ever top that as a college athlete,” says Nelson. “The city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin all rally around the Packers and the Badgers. I’ve won world titles for my country, but winning at the college level never leaves you and there wasn’t a happier moment in my life.’’
The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder began his hockey career at the age of three in Hanover, N.H., where his parents worked at Dartmouth College. After fifth grade, his parents both acquired jobs on the UCLA faculty and they warned him he would probably have to give up hockey when they moved to Los Angeles.
“Ironically, we moved about two blocks from a hockey rink and they were having tryouts at the time,’’ he says. “I made the team, got better and better and then started making travel and all-star teams. I was spotted by a college scout and he advised me to hone my skills by going to a prep school.’’
Nelson attended the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield, Mich., during his sophomore and junior years before returning to Los Angeles. It was while at Cranbrook that Nelson started receiving letters of interest from Wisconsin head coach Jeff Sauer. But before heading off to Madison, he spent one year of Junior Hockey playing with the Rochester (Minn.) Mustangs of the U.S. Hockey League in 1987, where he made the all-star team and was a member of the USHL elite team that toured Switzerland.
“I was a scrawny 162-pound kid and I figured I needed better competition before I headed off to Wisconsin,’’ he says. “Coach Sauer told me one year, not two or three, but only one year of Junior Hockey. And my parents were all about making sure I got a college education.’’
Playing that one year of Junior Hockey may have presented Nelson with his toughest challenge in his career.
“We were playing in a lot of small towns, where people weren’t as socially acceptable to people of color in general,’’ he says. “At least at the college level you are surrounded by academic people, where you don’t get as many racial slurs thrown at you.’’
Nelson, who was selected in the fifth round by the New Jersey Devils in the 1988 NHL entry draft, received his degree in African-American studies at Wisconsin in 1992 and spent the next three years bouncing around the American Hockey League and International Hockey League. He spent another four years on the ice playing in the East Coast and West Coast hockey leagues, but by then his career was already heading in a new direction. He had moved back to Los Angeles and had started working in commercials, as well as television and movies.
“The first thing I did was “Baywatch’’,” he says. “I was ‘Bad Guy No. 2’. I got a chance to meet Pamela Anderson and Yasmine Bleeth, not bad people to hang around with.’’
In addition to “Baywatch”, Nelson had TV roles in “Malcolm in the Middle”, “Fame L.A.”, “The Fugitive” and “Bones” while also doing several commercials and working as a technical advisor in such movies as “The Love Guru”, “Batman & Robin”, “Miracle” and “The Tooth Fairy”.
The move back to Los Angeles also allowed Nelson to get involved with roller hockey in 1994.
“The sport was just taking off,’’ he says. “I was living in L.A., getting a lot of recognition and we were playing in all the NHL arenas. The recognition was helping me land more commercials, especially if the commercial centered on hockey because you always need a person of color to appeal to that demographic. It would be a different story if it were basketball because there are plenty of African-American basketball players in L.A.’’
Nelson stopped playing professional roller hockey in 2004 and though he still does the occasional commercial there has been less time for movies and TV since he joined the hotel industry approximately 10 years ago. As the insider, his job is to handle all the VIPs and celebrities staying at the W Hotel in Hollywood.
“I have literally met everyone,’’ he says. “I am the one who escorts them to their limousines for the Oscars and the one who prepares the rooms for them and their events. I make sure everything they need to happen - happens.
“I have met so many celebrities that it is almost routine now. Music people always catch my eye, but I keep my professionalism and never get star-struck. I am just excited that they are staying at our hotel.’’
When time does allow, he still tries to help out with advising and choreography for movies. There is a possibility of work on a hockey movie this summer.
“Unlike commercials, where you can take two or three vacation days to shoot, movies require you to be on set for 15-20 hours per day for longer periods of time,’’ he says. “A movie becomes your life and once it’s over, you’re unemployed. If I can do the advising without being on set, that’s one thing, but I need to consistently work on my new career.’’
Nelson currently lives within five miles of his parents’ house. His mother passed away last October after a bout with cancer while his father continues to teach and write African-American history books at UCLA.
“I talk to people now who have never left this country and even think Canada is another state,’’ he says. “The sport of hockey has taken me all over the world. I have been up and down Japan, been to Spain, Italy and all over Europe. Those experiences have helped me with working in hotels because I am able to relate to people from other countries when they come visit us.’’