SAN JOSE -- Rookie Matt Nieto and his mother have a tight relationship, the kind where she could tell the world on Twitter how proud she was that "my little fool" was in the NHL after his first game as a Shark. And he wasn't embarrassed.

"She's a jokester for sure," Nieto said. "She just enjoys life."

That zest for life only made it harder last September when Nieto learned that his mother, Mary Nieto, had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.

"It was pretty crazy to take in all that, and I had to come to training camp," Nieto said. "It was a tough situation. I had to figure out a way to clear that out of my head while I was at the rink and working."

The first Californian drafted by the Sharks when he was their second-round pick in 2011, Nieto, who grew up in Long Beach, was a bit of a long shot to make San Jose's opening-day roster at age 20. He had spent only 11 games in the minors last spring after three years at Boston University, but injuries created openings at forward, and he filled one.

"When I made the team out of camp, I think it kind of helped her," Nieto said. "We were playing every other day, and it'd take her mind off it, being able to watch."

Mary Nieto has undergone two surgeries and completed a round of chemotherapy over the past nine months. More surgery is required, but she said her prognosis is good.


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Whatever role hockey played in getting her through this, she said, doesn't compare to what the sport has done for her son as an escape route at age 14 from the hazards that awaited on the streets.

"Probably everybody that he hung out with is either in a gang or on drugs or something," she said. "It's good that he got out of this environment for sure. I think hockey saved his life, absolutely. Hockey became a way out for a Mexican-American kid in Southern California.

"When he was born, we lived in a really bad neighborhood," Mary Nieto said. "There were drive-by shootings. He jokes about it, that Snoop Dogg lived around the corner. It's true, but Matt wasn't born then."

When he was 2, Matt was asking for roller blades after watching his older sister skating around the house.

"He never took those things off. I could hear where he was 24/7 in the neighborhood," his mother said. "It was kind of cool because I always knew what he was doing. I could hear the little clicking of roller blades."

His grandfather bought him a hockey stick, and by age 3, Matt was playing roller hockey at the local YMCA, where he made a lifelong friend in Emerson Etem, now a forward with the Anaheim Ducks.

Nieto's dad, Jesse, is a longshoreman who had a lot of night shifts, and that helps explain how Matt grew a little closer to his mother, a makeup artist at Nordstrom's.

"But he played just as big a role as my mom in getting me here," Nieto said of his father. "He worked hard hours for me and got me to the rink whenever I needed."

Before their son was ready for kindergarten, the family moved to a better part of Long Beach. Still, schools remained a concern until prep school in Connecticut became an option for Nieto at age 14.

"We were talking to a family friend that suggested maybe it was time to go somewhere where he was safer and could focus on hockey as well as his studies," Mary Nieto said.

The friend was the coach at a leadership camp that Matt Nieto attended as a 12-year-old. Nieto ended up at Salisbury School in northwest Connecticut on a full scholarship -- the same way he would later be able to attend Boston University before turning pro with a three-year, $2.3 million deal.

Because he had played only 11 games last spring in Worcester, Nieto was little more than just a blip on the radar screen when training camp opened last fall.

"He was an unknown to us as coaches because we don't get to see him play when he's in college or anything like that," said coach Todd McLellan, who added he first saw Nieto's potential in summer development camp. "But he was not unknown to the organization. A pleasant surprise, but not a shot out of space or anything like that."

Nieto, who has 10 goals and 24 points this season, made the opening-night roster. And he calls home after each game.

"He wouldn't even talk about the hockey game," Mary Nieto said. "He'd be like, 'How're you feeling today? What's going on? When's your next doctor's appointment?' He was just real compassionate and always thinking about me."

In late October, the NHL schedule did Nieto a favor. A five-city trip that took the Sharks to the East Coast wrapped up with a game in Los Angeles. The timing coincided with his mother's surgery, and the Sharks gave him the green light to miss practice and spend two days with his family.

His mother has been able to attend only one of her son's games this season, San Jose's opening-night victory over the Vancouver Canucks. Part of that is because of her medical condition, part is because one of Matt's two sisters has Down syndrome and autism. She is unable to travel or be left on her own.

Even if the Sharks do face the Los Angeles Kings when the playoffs open next week, Mary Nieto won't be able to attend any of the games because her next surgery is set for April 18.

But she is hoping to be at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Wednesday when the Sharks face the Ducks. And it's a tossup as to who will benefit more from the experience.

"He's very encouraging," Mary Nieto said of her son. "He's like a really big positive thing in my life, for sure."

For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.

Wednesday's game
Sharks (49-21-9) at Anaheim (50-20-8), 7:30 p.m. CSNCA