Schmidt Happens

By: 
Jessi Pierce

Nate Schmidt never subscribed to the “stick to hockey” mantra. Being a one-sport athlete didn’t appeal to the kid from St. Cloud, Minn., at least not until he came to that crossroad. And that formula seems to have worked well for the 30-year-old defenseman who is entering his 10th professional hockey season and first with the Winnipeg Jets. 

Schmidt’s movement from the field to track and rink to court was no coincidence. There was his instant love of sports, sure, but he also credits the strategic parenting of his father, Tom, for much of his success. 

“My dad had this rule that if you weren’t going to be involved in sports or some type of extracurriculars, you had to work. So for me, it was hockey, baseball, football, soccer—I even picked up track and field on Saturday mornings—anything so I didn’t have to go to work,” Schmidt says with his familiar ear-to-ear grin. 

“I think everyone’s so focused on not falling behind in any particular sport, but you lose so much when you’re not playing different sports. There are all these little things, like hand-eye coordination and movements that you can use to your advantage in other sports. … The more athletic you can be, the better off you’re going to be in hockey.”

 

‘Did You Work Hard Today?’ 

Ironically, while Schmidt initially got involved in sports to avoid working, it was his work ethic that made him stand out on the ice. 

“My dad never asked me about my mistakes or how many goals I scored,” Schmidt recalls. “Instead he would ask: ‘Did you work hard today?’ And I’d rattle off my stats and he’d be like, ‘No, I asked if you worked hard today.’ He wanted to make sure I was always putting my best foot forward. So, I always did. I learned that’s when you’re truly proud of yourself.”

“I think everyone’s so focused on not falling behind in any particular sport, but you lose so much when you’re not playing different sports. There are all these little things, like hand-eye coordination and movements that you can use to your advantage in other sports. … The more athletic you can be, the better off you’re going to be in hockey.”

—Nate Schmidt

As a late bloomer, Schmidt quickly found how effective hard work is at every level. When he was cut from his Squirt A team, he came back stronger the following season. He would eventually make every A team he tried out for all the way through high school, where as a junior he led all defensemen in the state of Minnesota with 45 points (21 goals, 24 assists) in just 25 games. 

When he was getting minimal minutes at the University of Minnesota, he opted to fill in a few games at forward, a position he admits never really suited him.

“I get a very uneasy feeling when there are people behind me on the ice,” he says. “That’s probably why I’m a defenseman.” 

When he went undrafted into the NHL, Schmidt proved himself enough to the Washington Capitals to earn an entry-level contract, but bounced between the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and Washington for his first three professional seasons. 

Schmidt eventually became a mainstay on the blue line in 2015, a role he’s held onto with every team he’s played on, including Vegas, Vancouver and now Winnipeg. 

“Not everything’s going to be perfect,” says Schmidt, who owns 34 goals and 155 points in 450 NHL games. “I was one of the first cuts at camp. Then a guy gets hurt, I get called up and then get sent back down. There’s so many rollercoasters that you don’t really see when you’re in it. You only see yourself in that moment. I remember my first year as a pro, just being like, I can’t do anything about some of these things and just trying to take that outlook.

“It goes back to hard work. As long as you feel good about your body of work, then you can kind of walk away from things with your head held high and say, ‘Ya know what, I put my best foot forward and however it works and whatever happens, happens and I can’t do anything after that.’

“Hockey’s so short. We have the rest of our lives to live. We can’t take this job too seriously.” 

 

‘Did You Have Fun?’

Not taking it too seriously was another point of emphasis from Schmidt’s dad. 

“There was no pouting after a bad game or about being cut. If you pout, it means you’re not having fun; and if you’re not having fun, then we’re not taking you back,” Schmidt recalls his dad saying. “So I knew as long as I was having fun, my parents would keep bringing me back to hockey. Luckily, having fun was the easy part. There were your friends and the competition. Hockey was always a ton of fun.” 

Schmidt was reminded of the fun even in the face of adversity. When he was exposed by the Capitals in the 2017 expansion draft and ultimately selected by the Golden Knights, then-Washington coach, Barry Trotz had one thing to say: 

“I remember Barry saying, ‘Schmitty, I know it sucks right now, but trust me, you’re going to have so much fun no matter if you win, lose or whatever, it’s going to be an awesome time,’” recalls Schmidt, who went on to score a career-high 36 points with the expansion club. 

“Sure enough, he was exactly right. I didn’t realize we were going to see him later in the year [in a loss to Washington in the Stanley Cup Finals] but it was just something that was so fun. It was like Peewee hockey or the AHL all over again. We were a real team that never left each other’s side.”  

Schmidt and the labeled ‘misfits’ of the Golden Knights continued to enjoy success the next two seasons before he was traded to the Canucks ahead of the 2020-21 shortened season. He was traded again this past summer to Winnipeg. 

“Trades are part of the business, and some are tougher to swallow than others,” he says. “But as long as you stay true to you, have fun and work hard, the rest will fall in line.”P

 

Jessi Pierce is a freelance writer and podcast host covering the NHL in St. Paul, Minn.

Issue: 
2021-09

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