July 31, 2016

Kraig Nienhuis

Some people want to be hockey players. Others want to be rock stars.

Kraig Nienhuis got to be both.

Mind you, he was a classic late bloomer who overcame unlikely long odds in both cases, too.

After attending Renessalaer Polytechnical Institute from 1982 through 1985 when they won the NCAA championship, the undrafted Nienhuis emerged as an intriguing NHL prospect, sought after from as many as eleven teams. He could skate and relished the physical game. For what he may have lacked in creativity in his game he made up for in effort. He had pro checker written all over him.

"In five years I went from house-league hockey to the NHL," Nienhuis said. "It's a pretty incredible story."

"I didn't start to take hockey seriously until I was 18," he told The Hockey News back in 1985. "I played mostly semi-pro soccer and football until I was 18."

"Neener," as known to his friends, had played a lot of pond hockey to that point but his organized hockey experience was mostly with a church recreational league. Yet he played hard and was able to walk on to a season of junior B hockey with the Sarnia Bees. That earned him a scholarship offer to RPI.

RPI coach Mike Addesa had the biggest impact on Nienhuis' game.

"I really didn't have any type of style until I got into college," he said. "Then Mike kind of said 'With your physical attributes and your skating ability, you really don't have the finesse or the hands, so we'll make you a checker. That was stamped on my forehead when I came to the pros."

And check he did. But a funny thing happened in his first season with the Bruins. He scored 16 goals and 30 points in that rookie campaign. He said the game just seemed easier at that level, believe it or not.

"It just comes down to a lot more freedom on the ice in the pros, the ability to ad lib. You can innovate a little bit more out there in the pros," Nienhuis said, somewhat surprisingly.

"In college I was so restricted that it seemed like I was bound by chains all the time. In the pros, there's been no chains at all. It's just free wheeling."

"In college everybody just skates a hundred miles an hour the whole time. Everybody's just flying all over. I pros, it's much more slowed down, much more a thinking game."

Ah but that changed the next season, perhaps because of coaching instability as Butch Goring was released. Nienhuis and his ad lib game were demoted to the minor leagues after just 16 games. He would return for only one more NHL game ever in his career.

By 1988 Nienhuis left the North American game but found great enjoyment in playing the game overseas. He would play in Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Great Britain and Italy up until 1999.

Kraig Nienhuis certainly did not have the stereotypical after-hockey career that many fringe NHLer have. No he did not sell real estate or work for a brewery.

Instead he front a rock band named 9 House and opened concerts for the likes of ZZ Top, Nickelback, David Lee Roth and the Beach Boys.

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