Once upon a time, there was a unique player around these parts who captured the hearts of hockey fans like very few have ever done. The Minnesota-born defenceman clearly loved what he did for a living, often resembling a big kid on skates. The fact he was "one of us" — an avid outdoorsman who loved the ample hunting and fishing our region provides — only added to his charm, along with a devilish smile and playful personality.
And then, in the blink of an eye and without any warning, he was gone.
There's no question Dustin Byfuglien's surprise retirement two years ago left a big hole — not only on the Winnipeg Jets blue-line, but in the psyche of the team's loyal supporters. It's not one that can be easily, or quickly, filled.
It's been said time heals all wounds. Whether you believe that or not, there's a new face in town who has the potential to turn all those frowns upside-down. Like Byfuglien, this offensive-minded blue-liner was born just south of the border in the State of Hockey, loves nothing more than being in the woods or on a boat and has been called one of the most unique characters in the game, a fun-loving jokester who leaves a lasting impression everywhere he goes.
"One of his former coaches told me he’s the best culture guy he’s ever had on his team in the NHL," said Jets coach Paul Maurice.
"He's the total package of what we need," added veteran captain Blake Wheeler.
"The personality just oozes," noted general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, the man who orchestrated the big summer trade. "You see the smile on the ice when he’s skating around, flying around out there. The little subtle things you see in the scrimmages where he’s deceptive with the puck. It looks like he’s going the one way, then all of a sudden he’s breaking the puck out the other way."
High praise, indeed. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, allow us to introduce you to Nate Schmidt. We think you're going to like what you see.
"I'm honoured to even be talked about in the same conversations as him," Schmidt, 30, said in a wide-ranging one-on-one interview with the Free Press earlier this month. "I know Buff. He's certainly one-of-a-kind. The first thing I’m going to ask him is 'Where are your contacts?' I need to know all the hot spots to go (fishing and hunting)."
To be clear, Schmidt is more than just the resident class clown. He can back up the occasional on-ice buffoonery — we mean that in the most flattering way possible — with some A+ performances. Early training camp line rushes have him on the top pairing with alternate captain Josh Morrissey, while fellow newcomer Brenden Dillon slides into a second-pairing role with fellow Minnesotan Neal Pionk.
"I know (Pionk) from back home. I really like him. He’s a little bit on the quieter side, I’m a little bit on the louder side," Schmidt said with a chuckle.
"Having that big kid mentality about being at the rink, there’s a time and place. I’ve figured that out over my nine-year career. I love being a professional and doing things the right way and getting my work in and all that. I love that part of it, and holding myself to that standard, but I also do really enjoy — you know, this might be a job, but it’s the best one. And you can still have fun with it, even when times are tough. That’s almost the most important time. Everyone can have fun when we’re winning, that’s easy. It’s really a character check, a mirror check, when things aren’t going well and things aren’t bounding your way."
Schmidt certainly got an unhealthy dose of tough times last year, in his lone season playing in Vanouver following a surprising, salary-cap-cleaning trade by the Vegas Golden Knights, which had originally nabbed him in the 2017 expansion draft and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural year — downing the Jets in the Western Conference Final. As has been well-documented, the Canucks were decimated by a COVID-19 outbreak in the middle of an already disappointing season, leading to an unprecedented, gruelling schedule down the stretch in the all-Canadian division.
"It was really hard for everyone in the organization. It was one guy, the next day four guys, the next day 10 guys, the next day six more guys. I didn’t test positive until five or six days after the first guy tested positive. And we had already been away from each other. I was fortunate that I didn’t have any symptoms and felt good the whole time," said Schmidt.
"You could just tell in the first couple games back, guys were running on adrenaline and then all of a sudden within a week – it hit some of our guys really hard. I think it just ran our team down, you’re tired, mentally tired, you’re 10 days into playing 19 games in 32 days and playoffs are all but set in the North. It was really tough, especially the last 10-15 games for everyone. It was an unprecedented place to be in."
And before he could play a single game on the West Coast in front of fans, Schmidt was on the move once again. Vancouver was facing its own salary cap crunch, especially with Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes both coming out of their entry-level deals needing big-money extensions (which have yet to happen). Schmidt agreed to waive his no-move clause — after having a lengthy chat with former Vegas teammate turned Jets centre Paul Stastny — and he's suddenly going to be playing hockey just a few hours up the highway from home.
"I’ve been about the furthest places I could be from Minnesota the last three (Washington, Las Vegas, Vancouver). It’s good location-wise, I'm excited that I have the possibility of family being able to jump in the car and head on up," said Schmidt.
"And the more important factor for me, is being in a good room and on a good team. I think you’re looking at a team, you know, and I like this team and I like this group when you look at it from a hockey standpoint."
"It's going to go both ways in Winnipeg," predicts Bob Karn, the legendary local coach and teacher at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn. "People there are going to immediately embrace Nate, because they see how genuine he is. Everything about the way Nate plays hockey is genuine. And Nate, on the other end, is immediately going to embrace the town and the people. I think it's going to be a great relationship."
Karn knows Schmidt as well as anyone, having mentored him for a few of his formative teenage years. At the time, Schmidt was still deciding which athletic endeavour to pursue. Sure, he was a heck of a hockey player, but Karn said he might have been even better at baseball, which is where he coached him.
"The first game, he’s playing right field, and there’s a base hit to right field. And a runner on first base tried to go from first to third, and Nate threw him out," Karn recalled. "There’s something inside of some people that allows them to let their greatness out. Most of us have a genius and a greatness in us, but it doesn’t come out the way it does for Nate. He kind of lets it out."
Don Lucia saw that first-hand in Schmidt's first year of college hockey at the University of Minnesota. He only played 13 games in that first year (2010-11), registering but one assist.
"He had a hard time getting in the lineup freshman," said Lucia, the long-time bench boss of the Golden Gophers who retired in 2018. "It took a lot of heart and probably a little bit of humility that goes with it after that first year. And he transformed himself physically. When he showed up as a sophomore he was like a completely different player."
That would become a trend with Schmidt, the ability to adapt on the fly and make the difficult look easy.
"The only concern I had is that he wasn’t 6-3, 220 so you wonder from a physical standpoint," Lucia said of his burgeoning star, who exploded for 41 points in 43 games in his second year of NCAA play. (For the record, Schmidt is 6-feet, 194 pounds).
"But his ability to think the game and move the puck, I think that’s really where his game took off, especially with the new NHL where they opened up the league a little bit and you didn’t have to be a behemoth at any position anymore to play. And I think that really helped him. As he got opportunities, whether it was in college or at the pro level, once a coach had confidence in him and played him, he shined."
Despite posting another 32 points in 40 games in his third season at the U of M, every single NHL team took a pass on drafting Schmidt, a left-shooting skater who prefers to play on the right side. But he'd done just enough to warrant a free-agent look from the Washington Capitals development camp, who were impressed enough to sign him to his first big-league contract in 2013, a two-year, two-way deal that paid US$925,000 at the NHL level and US$70,000 in the minors.
"I think Nate’s a shining example of somebody that maybe didn’t have success right away at college, but came to work and two years later he signed an NHL contract. Now he’s having success and a pretty good NHL career," said Lucia.
No kidding. Eight years and 450 NHL games later, Schmidt is a top-tier blue-liner, signed for another four seasons at US$5.95 million.
"I believe in that whole idea that if you want something, you have to earn it. You have to do the things necessary to earn what you’re going to get. In Nate’s case, it was always done as an athlete with a sense of joy. I’m an English teacher also, and Nate was always an excellent student. Everything he did, he let out that energy and enthusiasm and it was a part of what he was doing," said Karn.
"From the very first time I got to know Nate, he had a big smile on his face about whatever he did. If he was going to play catch, he was having fun playing catch, but his mom is that way. She’s a person of just real joyful energy and his dad, they have given him the opportunity to not just showcase his talents, but they’ve given him the opportunity to earn what he gets."
Thomas and JoAnn Schmidt always made sure to keep their son honest and humble. From making him carry his own hockey bag to and from practice to putting him to work at the family-owned gas station in St. Cloud as a teenager, Nate quickly grew to learn the value of putting your nose to the grindstone.
"I would have to do whatever job was left over, usually the one no one else wanted to do. Clean the car wash, which by the way car washes are pretty gnarly on the inside. You never see them because your windows are always closed up and you have soap and water on them. Clean the bugs out of the canopy, paint the gas islands, you name it," said Schmidt.
"My Dad would usually be like 'I'm not paying you when you eat two pizzas a day at work.'"
Like nearly every player who makes it to the peak of their profession, the parents often made great sacrifices along the way. And that hasn't gone without notice, or appreciation, from Schmidt.
"Parents are incredible. When you are young, you’re like 'I don’t want to be with them, mom and dad don’t know anything.' And then you go off to college and you’re like, 'Ah, I'm on my own, I can do everything.' And then you realize when you’re 25 or 30, now for me, man they were pretty much right about everything. All the things I wouldn’t listen to them, saying they can’t tell me what to do, now you call up mom and dad and say 'Hey, thanks, you were right, I was wrong. It only took me 25 years to figure that out," said Schmidt.
"Everything from core values to how to conduct yourself. That's a big one. And that's something I take a lot of pride in. Obviously some of that you learn on your own, but a lot of it comes from Mom and Dad and how they bring you up."
Schmidt's resolve was tested in the fall of 2018, just prior to his second season in Sin City, when he was suspended 20 games for violating the NHL's performance-enhancing substance policy. Schmidt, his agent and the team all said at the time a "microscopic" amount of a banned matter was found in his system, which they linked to supplements provided by the organization. They all described it as an accidental, unintentional occurrence, but the league claimed its hands were tied by a rather black-and-white, no-tolerance policy.
"Not only did I not intentionally take a banned substance, I could not have received any performance enhancement benefit from the trace amount that inadvertently got into my system at a level that was far too small to have any effect," Schmidt said at the time.
His former mentors vouch for Schmidt, saying they have no doubt he was the unfortunate victim of unusual circumstances.
"He’s such a good guy in the locker room. He gets along with everybody. He’s got a lot of humility about him, there’s no ego involved. That’s why his teammates always love him so much. He’s always got that infectious smile and gregarious personality that’s so nice to have in the locker room," said Lucia.
"I know Nate will have success in Winnipeg. The fans will really embrace him and the media will, because of his personality and his commitment to try to be the best player he can be, and the best citizen he can be. Nate checks all the boxes."
It's clear Schmidt has already made a terrific first impression with his new teammates this past week. From breaking out into song while recording his introduction video for the Jets in-house media department on Monday to hamming it up during Thursday's first on-ice session, he appears to be right at home here in Winnipeg.
"Stas (Paul Stastny) and I have known Schmidty for a while, and he's a guy we kind of looked at all last year and thought would be a good fit for our team. He fits in in every way. A guy that can get up and down the ice, move the puck and bring a little bit of flavour to the locker-room, too," said Wheeler.
The ultra-serious captain even broke into a smile from his usually stoic game-face when asked Thursday if Schmidt's infectious personality might allow him to find a little more joy this coming season.
"Has he rubbed off us? Are you implying me in particular?" Wheeler cracked. "You can't have enough guys like that on your team and Buff was kind of our guy like that before, where he was kind of like never in a bad mood except for walking into this room. Certainly, like I said, it's too early for that to really show up, but, like, when the dog days of the season come up, that's where you lean on a guy like that to pick up the morale a little bit after a couple tough losses or what have you."
Schmidt's older brother, Mike, played minor hockey for a few years with Wheeler in Minnesota. And, in one of those "the world is really small" stories, Schmidt's parents live just down the street from the Poganski's. Their son, Austin, signed as a free agent this summer with the Jets and will be competing for a depth forward spot. Incredibly, Karn taught and coached both men at Cathedral High School.
"That team closeness, the connection in the room, is possibly the most important thing for the Winnipeg Jets. And maybe more specific to us because of where we are. So he’s going to be a real good player for us, he’s already bouncing around the room in there, he’s wired," said Maurice.
"He’s that guy every day. You love having those guys. Because you need the players to drive practice sometimes, too. If the coach is yelling every day to get jumping, to get moving, that’s never as good as if you’ve got a couple guys chirping and they’re wired every day. And it also takes the pressure off the other guys, the leaders, who maybe aren’t that vocal before the game in their best kind of prep mode, so they don’t have to be worried. You need a guy like that, who’s a chirper, who’s talking, who’s bringing the energy level of the room up. We’re really fortunate to have gotten him."
As the Jets get set to open their exhibition schedule on Sunday at Canada Life Centre, Schmidt is thrilled with the opportunity now staring him in the face.
"I really like how our D can look. I like the fact we have these options and this ability to move around until we get really comfortable. It reminds me a lot of our first year in Vegas. Where guys could fit, could they go here, could they go there? First month of the year all of a sudden bang, you’re rocking and rolling," he said.
As always, he plans to have a little fun along the way.
"It’s exciting to know that you're going into the year with the expectation that you’re going to be there at the end. That’s what you want as a player. You want that type of energy and adrenaline going. It’s a long year, but at the same time enjoy the process of getting there," said Schmidt.
"Brooks Orpik, he was the ultimate pro. Him and Stas are close in my books. And he always used to tell me never hit the fast forward button on life, never hit the fast forward button on a season. Because sure enough you’re going to be 37 and your career is going to be coming to a close and you're going to be saying 'Where the heck did everything go?'"
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.