Alexandria Blizzard forward Nardo Nagtzaam had to give up everything he was familiar with to chase his dream of playing hockey at the NCAA Division I level.
Nagtzaam left his home in the Netherlands as an 18-year-old after being one of the top players in Holland and in Germany. The next step was to prove himself against better competition in the United States.
It did not come easy, but in his third season in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), Nagtzaam accomplished what he set out for when he signed with Division I Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., last Thursday.
“It’s a dream come true for any hockey player,” Nagtzaam said. “I think it’s great for our country. We have three other NCAA hockey players playing Division I, and I’m the fourth one. I think it will help out our country a lot. Obviously my parents are very happy. My whole family is happy. It’s a dream come true.”
It's an accomplishment made more meaningful by the perseverance he showed to get it. Nagtzaam had always been the best player in his age group no matter where he played. That changed once he got to the United States.
Nagtzaam struggled to find his scoring touch in his first season in the NAHL with Alaska. In 46 games, he racked up 23 points and just nine goals. He worked on his game during the off-season and came back a different player in 2009. He eclipsed his 2008 statistics in just 30 games with the Avalanche last season, scoring 30 points, including 11 goals. He was then traded to an Alexandria team that needed his scoring punch.
Nagtzaam delivered in his first 24 games with the Blizzard. He scored 13 goals and added 19 assists, helping Alexandria to a franchise record 30 wins. His 61 points between Alaska and Alexandria was the sixth most in the NAHL. Despite those numbers, he still never received any offers from a Division I school.
“No, I never let it enter my mind,” Nagtzaam said when asked if he ever doubted that offer would come. “I thought, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. If it’s not going to happen, then it’s not. I just battled hard every day.”
Nagtzaam started the 2010 season right where he left off last year. He won Player of the Week honors for the Central Division at the NAHL Showcase Tournament in September. He was dominant at the event, scoring five goals and adding six assists in four games.
Coaches from Mercyhurst took notice and continued to track his progress through the first couple months of the season. Nagtzaam continued to perform at a high level after the showcase. After racking up 21 points through the first 15 games of this season, coaches from the Pennsylvania school had seen enough.
They contacted Nagtzaam on Nov. 11 and by the end of the conversation, a full scholarship offer was on the table. His signing was a moment that meant a lot to everyone involved with the Blizzard.
“It’s personally satisfying,” Blizzard head coach Doc DelCastillo said. “And for our organization, that’s the reason our ownership has a team here in Alexandria. That’s the reason we have our organization – to provide opportunities for these young men to develop and go to the next level... anybody involved in this organization is extremely proud when something like this happens for a young man like Nardo.”
No one was more excited than Nagtzaam’s family. After leaving home at 18, his mom and dad started to worry about their son getting an education. Nagtzaam knew his goal of playing college hockey went hand-in-hand with an opportunity to get into school. The fact that his 18 and 22-year-old sisters were already in college did not help ease the pressure.
“I’ve been out of school for the last three years,” he said. “And they were like, ‘Well you have to go to school.’ I was like, ‘Well, I’m still trying to get a Division I scholarship.’ They were so happy when I finally got the right scholarship. All the time they’ve put in, my sisters, too. They gave up a whole lot for me to play hockey.”
When the opportunity finally came, Nagtzaam was quick to jump on it. He called back the Monday after he received the offer and told the coaches he wanted to sign. Nagtzaam said the coaches expect him to make an impact as a freshman. That is something his current coach believes can happen given enough playing time.
“If he gets better defensively and does some little things, learns how to do the little things at the right time, he’ll get more opportunity,” DelCastillo said. “And the only thing that’s holding him back as far as contributing at the college level is going to be opportunity. If they play him a lot, put him on the power play, he’s going to contribute at that level.”
Nagtzaam recognizes there are still areas of his game that he needs to improve. He has a chance to do that as he plays out the 2010-2011 season with Alexandria before enrolling at Mercyhurst. His goal is to fine-tune those things and take care of some unfinished business with his Blizzard teammates.
“Just continue to improve and get ready for next year,” Nagtzaam said about goals for the rest of the season. “That and try to win a national championship here. I mean, it’s still a big goal. I’ve never won a U.S. championship, but it’s a big chance right now.”