Loveland Reporter-Herald

Another run for Nieto with Avalanche

Mackinnon gets favorite Fortnite partner back following recent trade

- By Bennett Durando

One of the top priorities when Matt Nieto returned to Denver was returning to the simulation.

At least one of his former Fortnite companions on the Avalanche roster had hung up the cleats, but Nieto never stopped playing. He and Nathan Mackinnon were especially dynamic at the popular online video game.

“I was really tight with him,” Mackinnon said. “We’re good buddies.”

“Me and Nate are going to get it dialed in,” Nieto said. “Become the best duo we can again.” Just like old times. That’s the feeling around the Avalanche locker room with an old pal back like he never left. Colorado general manager Chris Macfarland traded for Nieto the week before the NHL All-star break, bringing back the 31-yearold winger after 2 1/2 seasons apart. His 10-year career now consists of two stints with the San Jose Sharks and two stints with the Avalanche.

After his first practice at Colorado’s rink in Centennial, he sat in the dressing room and reflected on the last time he was there: “I was all the way in that back corner,” he said, pointing diagonally across the square space. “Locker room’s completely different over (at Ball Arena). … Walked in there and was completely lost. But got a tour right when I got in there.”

The Avalanche’s new digs at the arena might feel foreign to Nieto, but that’s about all that’s changed. After receiving the call that he had been traded while eating dinner in Raleigh, N.C., he packed a bag and was meeting with Avalanche coach Jared Bednar by the next morning. Same bench general, same systems, many of the same teammates.

“It’s a fun system to play,” said Nieto, who knew a trade was possible but didn’t think it would happen so soon with more than a month until the deadline. “When we’re playing well here, it’s an aggressive team, and usually when we’re playing good, it’s dictating the pace.”

The familiar faces start with 10 former Avalanche teammates from the 2019-20 season. Nieto was thrown on a line that first night back with Mikko Rantanen and J.T. Compher. He was always close with those two and Mackinnon, all of whom played Fortnite together. The online survival game pits 99 players against each other in a simulated space, competing to be the last person or team standing.

“He and Nate used to play a lot, and they were really good

together,” Rantanen remembers. “Me and Compher were like the East Coast Hockey League level, and they were like the NHL.”

Nieto recalls playing in a tournament that Compher organized. The jury’s out on whether Nieto or Mackinnon is better, but they went far as a team. “I’m sure we’ll start that back up again,” Nieto said eagerly.

Compher, however, downplayed it.

“I think that I’m done,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s still playing or not, but yeah, I’ve been off that for a while now.”

Nieto was the star Fortnite player and a model hockey teammate. He was known as the latter not just in the first Colorado stage of his career, but before and after.

When news reached

Evan Rodrigues about the trade, he texted to ask if he needed anything to help with the move. They were college linemates at Boston University a decade ago, and they played against Josh Manson’s Northeaste­rn teams in the local Beanpot series. Rodrigues and Nieto lost touch over the years aside from hellos when they crossed paths, but now they’re sharing ice time again and sharing memories.

“You’re getting breakfast, lunch, dinner together, going out together,” Rodrigues said. “College lifestyle’s not the pros, where people have families and stuff. You’re pretty much together 24/7.”

Then there’s Andrew Cogliano, who was also Nieto’s linemate — as recently as one year ago when both were in San Jose.

“C-mac did a good job. It was a great trade for our team. Bring in a guy that we know what he’s going to bring every night,” Cogliano said. “Great guy to be around. Great personalit­y. He’s from California, so he’s pretty chill.”

That’s the consensus adjective to describe Nieto: “Doesn’t talk too much, and just very chill,” as Rantanen put it.

Yet for someone so accustomed to the climate discrepanc­ies between California and Colorado, he was illprepare­d for the chill when he hurried to his new (and old) home after the trade.

“I’m in a hotel right now. … All my winter stuff is out (in San Jose),” Nieto said, laughing. “Going to have to get that.”

The WM Phoenix Open has a huge new purse and starpacked field as golf’s biggest party kicks off Super Bowl week in the Valley of the Sun.

“This week is a party for everyone except us,” fifthranke­d Patrick Cantlay said Wednesday, a day before the start of play at TPC Scottsdale. “It would be weird if every event was like this, but it’s great that we have events like this and there’s so many people in the area that come out and support the event.”

In response to the Saudifunde­d LIV Golf league, the tournament is an elevated PGA Tour event with a purse of $20 million and a winner’s share of $3.6 million — up from $8.2 million and $1.476 million in 2022.

“It was already a huge event, but made even bigger,” top-ranked Rory Mcilroy said. “Happy to be here and looking forward to the week.”

Mcilroy is trying to make it three wins in a row on the PGA Tour after taking the Tour Championsh­ip in August and The CJ Cup in October. He also won two weeks ago in Dubai on the European tour in his first start of the year.

“It feels like a long time ago, the Tour Championsh­ip and CJ Cup. But yeah, I’ve been on a really good run of form. Basically, all of last year,” Mcilroy said. “I feel like I’m just in a really good place with my game.”

The Northern Irishman made his only other start at TPC Scottsdale two years ago, closing with a 64 to tie for 13th.

“I haven’t had the full experience of this event yet,” Mcilroy said. “It was limited fans in ‘21 with only 5,000 people.”

Scottie Scheffler beat Cantlay in a playoff last year in the desert for his first PGA Tour title and added victories in the Arnold Palmer Invitation­al, WGC-DELL Technologi­es Match Play and Masters.

“Got a lot of good memories here,” said Scheffler, who is ranked second in the world. “Obviously, it’s a special tournament for me being the first win, and it’s definitely a lot of fun to be back.”

The Texan welcomes the rowdy atmosphere, with more than 200,000 fans expected for the third round Saturday.

“You’ve got to deal with the environmen­t here, but it’s something you’ve got to embrace,” Scheffler said. “It’s a lot of fun. I think a few times a year being able to play with this big of a crowd is pretty special for us.”

Jon Rahm opened the year with consecutiv­e victories in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and The American Express. The former Arizona State star from Spain had his best finish at TPC Scottsdale as an amateur when he tied for fifth in 2015.

“Haven’t really had a chance to win coming down the stretch,” the third-ranked Rahm said. “I’m hoping come the weekend, I’ve done a good enough job to go to that back nine knowing that I have a chance to win.”

The tournament and Super Bowl are in town the same week for the first time since 2015.

“It’s amazing to have two of these huge events in the same city on the same weekend,” Mcilroy said. “It’s going to be really interestin­g because I feel like Saturday here is going to be a huge day in terms of the numbers and everything, and it’ll be interestin­g to see what Sunday is like with people obviously wanting to get to the Super Bowl.”

The field features eight of the top 10 in the world. Missing are Cameron Smith, suspended because he signed with LIV Golf, and Will Zalatoris.

Mcilroy was asked if he felt like the best player in the world now.

“Yes,” he replied. “I’m playing well. I feel like consistenc­y-wise, I’ve been as good as I have been ever in my career.”

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 ?? KAMRAN JEBREILI — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Rory Mcilroy plays the 16th hole during the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Jan. 30.
KAMRAN JEBREILI — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Rory Mcilroy plays the 16th hole during the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Jan. 30.

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