WORTHINGTON — The Worthington, Minn., area is mourning the loss of a local businessman and hockey coach after an early Saturday morning, Sept. 8, hunting accident claimed the life of Jeffrey Dean Nickel at the Eagle Lake Wildlife Management Area southeast of Fulda, Minn.
Nickel, 39, is described by those who knew him as a loving, caring and positive person who found a soulmate in his wife, Tina, and beamed with pride as a father to two daughters, Jaden and Tayler, and one son, Spenser.
“He would do anything for his family,” said Cory Van Briesen, who first met the Nickel family when he had Jaden as a student at Worthington’s Prairie Elementary. “(Jeff) was a big part of our community — a beloved hockey coach, a friend to everyone who knew him.
“I loved him like he was a brother — no doubt about that,” Van Briesen said, treasuring the friendship that developed between their two families.
When Van Briesen’s son began playing hockey, Jeff talked him into helping coach in the Worthington Hockey Association.
“At the time I didn’t know squat about hockey,” Van Briesen admitted. “I just kind of laugh that he forced me to do it.”
For the past several years, Jeff coached Worthington Hockey’s mini-mites team. Van Briesen eventually became an assistant, and the two coached together last season, when each had a daughter on the team. The two families spent a lot of time together traveling to tournaments and, this summer, taking their sons to Lake Placid, N.Y. to play hockey.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the face of Worthington hockey,” Van Briesen said.
The kids flocked to Jeff because he was a fun coach — and the parents sought him out when they had questions.
“In some way he has been a part of every kid that has gone through this program — it doesn’t matter the age or gender, at some point he was part of their hockey life and career,” Van Briesen said.
Jeff’s volunteerism with the Worthington Hockey Association was a way to give back to the organization that shaped who he was.
He grew up the youngest of Jim and Deb Nickel’s three sons and donned hockey skates at a young age. Back then, the Nickel and the Rickbeil families were synonymous with Worthington hockey.
Dan Rickbeil and Aaron Janssen were both friends and classmates of Jeff, graduating together from WHS in 1997.
“We probably met in kindergarten, probably on the hockey rink,” Rickbeil shared. “We were in the same class in second and fourth grade and on and off after that.”
They had a brotherly bond all through school, and even when miles separated them, they kept in touch.
Rickbeil said Jeff was the kind of hockey player that would always lift everyone up and encourage them.
“He was very well-respected as a player,” Rickbeil shared.
Janssen called Jeff an enforcer.
“He played defense and didn’t shy away from the penalty box,” he shared. “When that helmet and jersey went on, he flipped the switch a little bit.
“He was one of the best players on the team; very well respected in the locker room,” Janssen said, adding that he’ll remember Jeff as a genuine, nice person who gave of his time and loved the outdoors.
As Rickbeil paged through old scrapbooks over the weekend, he said Jeff was pictured in many of photos of kids’ birthday parties, Halloween nights, hockey and swimming.
“We had a lot of fun together; a lot of laughs,” Rickbeil reminisced.
In the second grade, Jeff encouraged Tom Wieme to play hockey. To this day, Wieme said it was the best recommendation he received in elementary school.
“We played together through high school and I always had a great respect for Jeff's natural athletic ability,” Wieme said. “He was an excellent defenseman, and I always saw that other teams respected Jeff when he was on the ice.
“He always had a maturity about him, and I always remember him being a calming presence in the locker room,” Wieme added. “He was very steady, almost like a father figure to a lot of people.”
It was an important quality for a mini-mites coach.
“It takes a lot of patience to coach young kids in sports, but Jeff's giving heart to help develop young kids was evident,” Wieme added. “I know that he will be remembered well by people in Worthington.”
Wieme’s younger sister, Jill Cuperus, looked up to Jeff as a bonus older brother, much like the other hockey players on the team. When her oldest daughter, Jozie, began playing hockey five years ago, Jeff was her first coach.
“She, and all the kids, loved him,” Cuperus shared. “He was like the Pied Piper at the arena — he always had a trail of kids vying for his attention.
“His quick wit, volunteer heart, hockey knowledge and shouts of advice from the south end of the rink will be greatly missed,” she added. “All of us were lucky to know Jeff. Thank you Tina, Jaden, Spenser and Tayler for sharing him.”
Jason Johnson coached the mini-mites hockey team alongside Jeff for the past seven years. In fact, Jeff recruited him for the role.
“Jeff was a very caring coach,” Johnson said. “Even my own daughter said that he was her favorite coach, and I’ve coached her every year she’s played.”
Johnson said the Nickel family — and especially Jeff and Tina — have always been there to help with tournaments and, of course, coaching.
“(Jeff) loved to share what he loved with others,” Johnson said. “He loved hockey, and he was also very proud of his family. There’s no one that loved their family more than Jeff. He loved his wife, he loved his kids — he was very proud of them.”
Jeff worked as a licensed insurance agent for his family’s business, Nickel & Associates, in Worthington. He served this past year on the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors, and was the board liaison for the chamber’s agribusiness committee.
Visitation for Jeff Nickel will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at First United Methodist Church, Worthington, with the funeral at 11 a.m. Friday at the church.