I received a text message with a video attached from Kraig Nienhuis, a former college and pro hockey player, now turned very successful musician and very proud father.

He’s a man I’ve gotten to know and become friends with over the last two years with the common theme and connection being hockey and his son Nash, a senior defenseman for the Michigan State Spartans, who is also the 78th team captain in the school’s history.

Nash Nienhuis is a native a Sarnia, Ontario, just across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Mich., two cities that are connected by the Bluewater Bridge.

Nash is a young man I’ve gotten to know over the last two years as a very well-spoken, focused and driven young man. Every time I’ve talked with him, I left the conversation impressed with his spirit and attitude about his team, no matter how good or bad.

In fact, last week, as we wrapped up our Wednesday Zoom call with Nash ahead of the Spartans Big Ten Conference Tournament semifinal game versus Ohio State, I couldn’t help but be impressed once again with the way he spoke and his confidence.

One of the questions we asked Nash involved the routine for the Spartans during a bye week and prior to their semifinal showdown with Ohio State.

“We’ve kept the same approach we have all season. We know we still have room for growth; we can’t step off the pedal. We are all bought-in and this upcoming game is another opportunity to build on our game. We’ve simulated game pace and intensity. It was a beneficial week for our team.”

Nienhuis spoke like a leader and the team captain that the he is.

That’s what great leaders do: They always talk about the team; the team is what matters. No one is bigger than the team and that’s the case with this season’s MSU squad.

During Nienhuis’ sophomore year, the Spartans were not a very good team. They endured loss after loss, including 16 in a row. But, oh how times have changed for Nienhuis and his teammates. This season they won their first regular season championship since 2001 when they were with the CCHA. Now they are Big Ten regular season champions for the first time in the 11-year history of the conference. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Spartans the last two years under former MSU forward Adam Nightingale. Every player has bought in to Nightingale’s approach and way of doing things, and Nienhuis is a major part of that as the Spartans’ captain.

“Where we have come from, myself, Nico Mueller, Jon Moor, (three seniors), through the era of being a bad team…we went through a 16 game losing streak and how we have turned it around, it’s incredible. And I’ve thought about all of that, but we’re not done yet,” Nienhuis told me during that Zoom call.

It hit home hearing those words and you could see it through the call.

A message from Mess

Now a message from Mess, the great, legendary NHL player, captain and Hall of Famer Mark Messier, the five-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Edmonton Oilers; the captain of the New York Rangers when they won the Cup in 1994 after Messier guaranteed a Game 7 win over the New Jersey Devils, the same Game 7 where Messier scored a hat trick, the same Mark Messier who is arguably the greatest captain in NHL history.

The man was tough as nails and he always backed it up. He was part of six Stanley Cup-winning teams, an absolute legend in hockey and in sports. So, what’s the connection between Messier and the Nienhuis family? Of course, it’s hockey.

Nash’s father, Kraig, played college hockey at RPI for three years, then signed with the Boston Bruins. He played in 13 leagues over the course of his career and had great success playing pro hockey in Europe. It was there he played with Messier’s brother, Paul, and the bond and friendship is still there after all these years.

Now for the message from Mess: When I received this message from Kraig on the morning of March 16, I was blown away. I said to myself, this is just incredible. Mark Messier is a player I once idolized as a teenager. Anyone who is a hockey fan knows Mark Messier.

I mentioned this message from Mess during our TV broadcast on Big Ten Network:

The message from Mess centered around one word: conquer. Messier was in the gym working out and he then turned the camera to a picture on the gym wall that had the word conquer in big bold font. He read it in the video: “A verb, forceful overcome and take control of all weaknesses and excuses.”

Messier then reflected on his own experiences from the hundreds of big games he played in and went on to tell Nash Nienhuis to be grateful to all the people who helped put him in the situation he is in at Michigan State, and to collectively bring the energy together as a team.

Imagine getting such as message from one of the greatest leaders in sports history. It can only resonate through you and your team.

Poetry on Ice

A few hours later I put on my headset to do the play-by-play of the MSU-OSU semifinal playoff matchup. The game was intense and tight throughout. Early in the third period, just 13 seconds after OSU tied the game, Nienhuis had the puck in the slot from about 20 feet away and scored the go-ahead goal to put the Spartans back on top, 2-1.

There was still 17 minutes left in the game, but in the end, Nienhuis’ goal held up as the game-winner as the Spartans won, 2-1, to advance to their first-ever Big Ten Tournament Final. It was also their first playoff win at home since 2008, 16 years ago.

As I let the crowd noise take over after calling the Nienhuis goal during the TV broadcast, I couldn’t help but think about the message from Messier. I thought to myself how poetic it was, storybook, that Mark Messier sends you a message before a game and then you score the game winner.

The energy in sold-out Munn Arena was deafening. After the game, with the Spartans moving on to the Big Ten Championship game, we interviewed Nash and I asked him about the video.

He had no idea I knew about it and the look on his face was absolutely priceless. He told us how special the video message from Mess was and how he shared it in the team’s group chat.

You can’t make this kind of story up; you just can’t. I’ve been around sports for 30 years as a broadcaster and it got to me. It will always stay with me like when Messier once famously guaranteed that win.

What a moment for Nash Nienhuis and his team. Who says hockey isn’t romantic? It is at times and in this case it all stems from one word: Conquer.

And Nienhuis did exactly that for his team.

Ben Holden is a writer for Sports News Highlights.

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