In October 2020, Logan Nelson suddenly was out of a job. He had signed with the Atlanta Gladiators over the summer and was set to return to a team where he had put up 12 goals and 29 assists over 55 games in the 2019-20 season. But the Gladiators opted out of the 2020-21 ECHL season, and the 6-foot-1, 210-pound center was forced to scramble and start making some phone calls.
“I don’t have an agent, so it’s a lot of coaches and stuff that I am talking to personally,” said Nelson. “They’d kind of leave it open like a couple of weeks and we’ll check back. Some guys were nice about it and they would just say no right away, and you can move on.”
Nelson, who at that point had played six seasons and 331 games in the ECHL, ultimately couldn’t find a landing spot in the league. Wanting to keep his career going and not to miss a season, he signed with the Birmingham Bulls of the SPHL, the Single-A level of professional hockey.
A little over a year later, Nelson is the ECHL’s leader in assists, has three times been called up to the AHL, and for the first time in his career, is an ECHL All-Star.
“Obviously coming into this year, I wanted to prove a point,” said Nelson, 28. “And kind of just not backlash against guys who didn’t give me a chance but really just have a chance to show everyone that I deserve to be in this league, and I can be a top player in this league.”
He's been exactly that from day one for Rapid City, as Nelson opened the season by recording points in his first four games and put up multiple points in seven of the Rush’s first 17 games.
“He got off to a good start right off the hop,” said Rush head coach Scott Burt. “He’s kind of taken that and rolled it like a snowball. It just gets better and better.”
Nelson found instant chemistry in Rapid City, centering a top line with Stephen Baylis on his left wing and Alec Butcher on his right. Baylis and Butcher are also enjoying career years, with Baylis having already set new career highs with 14 goals and 13 assists in just 30 games and Butcher well on pace to surpass his career high of 15 goals, having tallied 11 in 31 games.
“It doesn’t hurt playing with guys like [Butcher] and [Baylis] every night,” said Nelson. “They are both very good hockey players, and they put themselves in good spots every night. They make my job a little bit easier, going out there and playing knowing that I’m with those guys, and I know they’re going to play hard, so it forces me to play hard too.”
“I think we have pushed each other,” said Baylis. “We have a common respect for each other. When you find a guy that you click with, you develop a bond. There’s a respect in that room between him and I.”
Burt has long been impressed by Nelson, dating back to their respective time in the major junior WHL, when Nelson starred for the Victoria Royals and Burt was the assistant coach for the Spokane Chiefs. That interest carried to more recent years in the ECHL, when Burt was the assistant coach for the division rival Idaho Steelheads.
“He was a player that I’ve always had eyes on, even when I was with Idaho,” said Burt. “He was a veteran player that I thought could bring a different look to our squad in Idaho. I always kept tabs on him.”
Burt gave Nelson a call last summer after Burt became Rapid City’s head coach. He said all Nelson asked for was an opportunity.
“I said this could be a last chance for you,” Burt said. “It could be an opportunity to reestablish yourself and continue to grow as a hockey player.”
“Burtie called me, and he told me he had coached against me in the [WHL], and that goes a long way because those were really good years for me,” said Nelson, a native of Rogers, MN, who played for the Victoria Royals for three seasons after a year in the USHL. “After the year I had to talk to some coaches and be turned down right away and to talk to Burtie, and all of a sudden, he believes in you. It just goes a long way, and it leads to a relationship where he trusts me and I trust him.”
That relationship has led to Nelson wearing an A on his sweater as an alternate captain and has him as not only the top-line center but on the first unit for both the Rush power play and penalty kill.
“When you know that you’re going to be out there 20-25 minutes a night like he is, you don’t grip the stick as much. You don’t worry so much about a little play here and there,” said Baylis. “You’re going to get another shift. You’re going to be out there on the power play, on the penalty kill. You’re going to make a difference.”
The power play time has paid dividends, as Nelson leads the league with 13 power-play assists and 16 power-play points. He can take over a game and plays with an edge. Despite his skill role, he doesn’t shy away from contact and is second on the team with three fighting majors.
“[Last season] humbled me to want to prove people wrong and want to work that much harder and deserve to be in the [ECHL],” said Nelson. “With that mindset changing, I think it really pushed me to work harder in the offseason and really do the extra stuff to get back in this league. And not just get back but get back and have success and prove to people that I belong here.”
The season in Birmingham should now be a distant memory for Rapid City’s All-Star, but it’s clear that the sting of fall 2020 still lives inside him, helping to push him to new heights. When Nelson appeared in his first career AHL game with the Tucson Roadrunners earlier this month, it was also his 400th career professional hockey game.
And on Monday night, he’ll skate in the 2022 Warrior/ECHL All-Star Classic in Jacksonville, having been selected by a vote of ECHL coaches, team captains, media relations directors, broadcasters and media members.
“It means a lot. You put in your blood, sweat and tears into the game,” said Nelson. “To be rewarded like that and recognized by other captains and other coaches, and some coaches maybe voted for me that didn’t want me on their team. In a roundabout way, that feels good too. It’s an exciting opportunity for me to go represent Rapid City in a good way and let everybody know what a good spot it is and how fun it is to come here and play.”