Living out his dream, 21-year-old Kayden Nielsen now plays hockey for Brigham Young University, after overcoming physical hurdles and a contract to play for Utah Valley University.
In the third-grade, while attending Rose Springs Elementary in Stansbury Park, Kayden was given a flier that would change his life. It invited kids to play hockey at the Accord Center in West Valley City. He took the flier home and gave it to his dad as a joke.
His father, Spencer Nielsen, had always loved hockey, even before the Grizzlies came to Utah in 1995 and before that, the Golden Eagles. He was excited.
“Mom was no! I was yes!” said Spencer Nielsen.
Kayden’s mother, Kim Nielsen, was a die-hard Utah Jazz fan and loved basketball. She wasn’t thrilled about watching hockey, but has since grown to love the sport and is Kayden’s biggest cheerleader.
Growing up, Kayden had always been active, rollerblading and participating in soccer and basketball. His rollerblading skills allowed him to skip the required ice-skating classes and start with the hockey team, where they practiced once a week and played games on weekends.
“Basketball and hockey are at the same time during the year,” Kayden said. “I had to choose between them. I loved basketball, but I think I was a little better at hockey.”
Until his junior year at Stanbury High School, Kayden played soccer as well but then decided he wanted to take hockey more seriously.
“Sometimes we’d pick him up from a soccer game and he’d be changing in the car to go to a hockey game,” Kim Nielsen said.
There were no hockey teams in Tooele County until Kayden’s senior year when Stansbury High School formed a team. Now it has branched out to all of Tooele County and is called the Tooele County Outlaws.
One of the only times Kayden thought of quitting was during his senior year. He was traveling with his team to Washington while at home the Stallions were playing the Buffs in a rival football game. Nielsen saw friends posts on social media and everyone was saying how much fun they were having. He asked himself if the sacrifice was worth it.
“I missed a lot of parties and get togethers,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to miss those things, and in the end it was all worth it.”
With offers from Pittsburg, New York, Canada, and local colleges, Kayden’s opportunity to play in college looked promising. Unfortunately, he found out that he was going to have to have hip surgery.
As a child, Kayden’s hip bones did not form normally and he was diagnosed with femoroacetabular impingement. This is a condition that results from extra bone growths along one or both bones that form the hip joint. Kayden would have to have surgery to fix it and stop the pain.
Things looked bleak as colleges withdrew their offers after Kayden explained his situation.
“You get so out of shape. Your body is going to tell you, ‘you can’t do it,’” Kayden said. “But you’ve got to flip the switch that you can.”
One day his mom came home from teaching school after Kayden’s surgery and found him outside on his crutches shooting pucks into the garbage can.
Feeling that his last chance to play lay in college, Kayden had a week between the doctor’s OK and UVU tryouts. Every day that week was spent on the ice.
“I had to lose my big belly and get back in shape,” he said.
With a successful tryout, UVU signed Kayden and he joined its team in August 2018.
A few weeks into the semester, a BYU hockey player, Jake Eisenstat, reached out to Kayden. Eisenstat had transferred from the University of Utah’s hockey team to play for BYU and asked Kayden if he would be interested in playing for BYU.
“It was always my dream to play for BYU, but I had already signed with UVU,” Kayden said.
Fortunately, Eisenstat had been in a similar situation and told Kayden to send him his contract. Looking over the contract, Eisenstat saw that it had been misdated for a year earlier, giving Kayden the opportunity to get out of his contract.
“I was always a die-hard BYU fan,” Kayden said.
His mother can testify to this since Kayden sang the fight song all day after signing.
When he was 12, Kayden went to a hockey tournament where one of the raffle prizes was a gift bag with a BYU hat, shirt and tickets. Kayden won the giveaway.
“I got the shirt and it was huge on me, but it fits me now,” said Kayden, who has kept the shirt for all these years.
From then on, he loved BYU hockey.
Another big obstacle Kayden has faced began in 2010, during his second year playing hockey, when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
Joe Rylant, Kayden’s coach at the time, reassured his parents that he would take care of the young man, and he did. Rylant watched Kayden grow up on the rink and watched him battle diabetes, but not let the disease beat him.
“Kayden was one of the most coachable players I have ever coached,” Rylant said. “He always accepted coaching the right way. Making adjustments to play. Not taking coaching to the heart, but to the mind.”
Rylant continues to coach and has invited Kayden to be a guest coach for his current team.
“I know he would inspire my players to follow their dreams,” Rylant said. “Dreams are what fuel people to become great.”
Kayden never listened to the people who doubted him and decided that he would always work hard.
“I want to show kids that diabetes doesn’t have to stop you from achieving your dreams,” Kayden said.
Playing for BYU also gave Kayden an opportunity to have a night to increase diabetes awareness. Due to the initial success, he repeated that effort this year.
During practice this season, BYU’s head coach, Dave Pitcher, noticed that Kayden’s stride was shortening up.
“Kayden loves hockey so much that he was willing to put up with the pain he was having to continue to play and we were generally unaware of his struggle because he kept it to himself,” Pitcher said.
Kayden would once more have to have surgery on his hips and would be out for the rest of the season.
“We love Kayden. He has been a big part of the success of our team these past two seasons and is already greatly missed,” Pitcher said. “His attitude and drive have been a great example to his teammates and coaches.”
Through all the ups and downs, Kayden continues to work hard battling to get back up from whatever he faces.
“I want to be remembered as a kid who worked hard and overcame adversity,” Kayden said.
And all those who know him, know he has.