Nevers finally plays after long wait

Tom Nevers stepped onto the Mariucci Arena ice for the pregame skate-around on Friday night with a certain swagger about him. He let his stick follow him on his left side as he circled the rink like the rest of his counterparts.
Nevers felt like he belonged on the ice, but he was different than the rest of the players. He has always been different.
At age 25 and after a year and a half of practicing with the team, this was Nevers’ first game as a Gophers hockey player. And he knew going into it that it would be his last.
After taking a couple laps around the rink before Friday’s game, Nevers stopped in the northwest corner of the rink and dropped down to put his hands on his knees. He was laughing to himself because he was already winded. Nevers said he hadn’t breathed that hard in six years when he last played in an official hockey game.
In the late 1980’s, there was no bigger sports icon to a teenager in Edina than Tom Nevers. Gophers co-captain and fellow Edina native Casey Hankinson was no exception.
Hankinson, who also plays baseball for the Gophers, skated next to Nevers and put his hands on his knees as well. And there they stood. An Edina High School hockey and baseball legend and one of his closest followers. Only this time, the follower was giving the advice.
“I just told him to settle down and relax,” Hankinson said. “He was kind of my idol growing up. I hope somewhere there are some pictures of us together because this was a special moment.”
Standing next to Casey was kind of an ironic moment for Nevers, who always thought he’d be sharing the Mariucci ice with Casey’s older brother Ben.
But in Nevers’ senior year of high school in 1989, he was drafted by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and by pro baseball’s Houston Astros. He was heavily recruited by the Gophers to play baseball and hockey but passed-up a scholarship to sign with the Astros. Ben signed with the Gophers.
After spending five years in the minors with little success, Nevers decided to come back to the University and work out with the hockey team.
He registered for classes last week so he would be eligible to play a game in the Denver series. He openly admitted he has no intention of studying any time soon.
“I’m dropping them tomorrow,” Nevers said about his classes. “Don’t ask me what they are because I don’t even know.
“It’s not selfish because I felt I deserved it. If I felt in any way that I was taking advantage of the program, I wouldn’t do it.”
At first glance, the move seems like a breach of some kind of ethical code, but it was more of a reward for all his hard work. To the rest of the Minnesota players, this was an opportunity well deserved.
“He’s probably the hardest worker on the team because he’s preparing for a baseball career,” Hankinson said. “He’s always riding the bike after practice and stuff like that. He earns everything he ever gets.”
Many people around the Twin Cities interpreted his return to hockey as a sign he was frustrated with his baseball career. That, Nevers said, is not true.
“I wasn’t coming back to be in the NHL,” he said. “I was here to fulfill a challenge. I love challenges. I have every intention to make it to the majors this year.”
In November, baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals signed Nevers to a guaranteed Triple-A contract with an invitation to spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., starting Feb. 10. He spent last summer with New Britain, the Minnesota Twins’ AA team.
Nevers worked with the Gophers again this year to stay in shape and to prove to himself he could still play hockey. He got that chance and actually played pretty well, taking seven shots at Denver goalie Stephen Wagner to no avail.
So will Tom Nevers ever play in another game for the Gophers hockey team?
“Absolutely not,” Nevers said still out of breathe and leaning back on his heels. “The chapter’s closed.”
— Matthew Cross