Chris Nell has always dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League.
The Bowling Green junior is one step closer to reaching his goal. The goalie signed an entry-level contract Thursday with the NHL’s New York Rangers.
The undrafted free agent is the second Falcon junior to forego their senior season to sign a pro contract. Defenseman Mark Friedman signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted him in the third round in 2014.
Nell played in 34 of BG’s 41 games this season, posting a 2.15 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. He started 33 games.
He finished his career as BG’s all-time leader in goals-against (2.07), save percentage (.922) and shutouts (11). He had a 41-29-10 record in 84 career games.
“It’s a surreal experience,” Nell said. “It’s really cool. The memories I’ve made here and the people I’ve met, all the relationships I’ve made with the coaching staff, my teammates and the fans, it’s bittersweet. I’m leaving a great place. I’m glad I could call (Bowling Green) home for three years.”
Nell had a difficult season on and off the ice following a terrific sophomore season when he posted a 1.31 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in 37 games to earn first-team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association honors.
But his dad, Rick, died unexpectedly Sept. 12, and the 6-foot-1, 184-pounder didn’t play well early in the season. He stopped only 76 of 91 shots in his first four games, but gradually improved his play as the season went on.
Nell had a 1.63 goals-against and a .941 save percentage in 15 games after returning from the Christmas break. He posted three straight shutouts in February and had a school-record scoreless streak of 220:18.
His play was one of the major reasons the Falcons won seven straight games late in the season and advanced to last Saturday’s championship game of the WCHA Playoffs where they lost at Michigan Tech in two overtimes.
“I felt like I was ready to take that next step,” Nell said. “It just felt like the right time in my heart. I went through a lot of adversity this year on and off the ice. I felt like the second half (of the season), I had solidified in my mind that I’m ready to make the jump to pro hockey.”
Nell will report to Hartford on Wednesday and is expecting to play in a couple of games with the Wolf Pack. The team is the Rangers’ top minor-league affiliate and plays in the American Hockey League.
If he doesn’t stick with the Wolf Pack next season, Nell could be assigned to the Rangers’ ECHL affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina.
“Hopefully, I can work my way into sticking with the AHL team and just seeing how it goes,” Nell said. “Pro hockey is a business, so there’s nothing guaranteed. It sounds like as long as I work hard and play the right hockey, I’ll get a chance with their AHL team.”
Nell starts his pro career after playing well during the second half this season.
“I feel good about my game,” Nell said. “The first half of the year was a struggle, but, down the stretch, I really started to find my game again and put it together where it was a season ago. I’m just simplifying my game and making sure I’m in the right spots at the right times, and not over-moving or scrambling around the net. I’m just trying to make it look easy. If you’re in the right spots and let the pucks hit you, it makes your job a lot easier.”
Nell returned to BG for his junior season after receiving interest from the NHL last season. The pros were interested in the 22-year-old again this season, but he told his family adviser he didn’t want to know of the teams interested until BG’s season ended.
The Falcons returned from Tech Sunday, and Nell learned of the pro interest in him after that. He decided to sign with the Rangers Thursday.
“It was a whirlwind,” Nell said. “(I signed with the Rangers) because of the opportunity they had. It’s an Original 6 team and a first-class organization. I just felt like it was right fit when I talked with everyone in the organization.”
Even though Nell is leaving BG early, he said he’s committed to earning his degree in marketing. He has a 2.7 grade-point average. Before going to Hartford, he’s meeting with his advisors to finalize his future academic plans which most likely will include attending summer school.
“The main goal is to finish my degree,” Nell said. “That’s been the goal for my whole career here. I’m going to keep working towards that.”
Also this week, two BG senior forwards signed ECHL contracts — Kevin Dufour with the South Carolina Stingrays and Matt Pohlkamp with the Toledo Walleye.