Growing up as a kid in the Sunshine State, Nathan Smith never imagined he’d one day be dedicating his life to a career on ice.

Growing up as a kid in the Sunshine State, Nathan Smith never imagined he’d one day be dedicating his life to a career on ice.

A native of Tampa Bay, Fla., Smith didn’t even begin skating until he was 11, after years of playing hockey on roller blades. Fast-forward more than a decade, and the 23-year-old Winnipeg Jets prospect — selected in the third round, 91st overall, in the 2018 NHL Draft — is once again living an unlikely fate.

With the NHL no longer loaning its players for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, it’s opened the door for amateur athletes such as Smith to play on the biggest international stage. Last week, Smith was one of 25 players named to the U.S. Men’s roster that will compete for gold next month in China.

“I had to take a step back and take a deep breath real quick. Even then, I didn’t know what to say,” Smith said to a small group of reporters over Zoom Tuesday, when asked about getting the call and finding out he had made the team. “I thought it was cool, but I didn’t really think that I’d be considered. There are a lot of good players in this country — even playing pro in other countries, too.”

Smith said the thought of playing in the Olympics hadn’t crossed his mind, even as it became clearer and clearer that the NHL wouldn’t be partaking and other options for players would need to be explored. Not even a conversation with Mike Hastings, Smith’s head coach at Minnesota State University (Mankato) and one of four assistant coaches for the U.S. men’s team, telling him he was being seriously considered was enough to make him a believer.

That all changed once he got the call, and from there it’s been all excitement ever since. Smith said he immediately called his parents to deliver the good news.

“My dad first, he didn’t know what to say either. He was shocked and super excited for me and really proud,” Smith said. “My mom, I called her right after that, I could hear her crying over the phone. They were both pretty excited for me.”

While Smith was certainly genuine in how shocked he was at making the team, he wasn’t exactly a surprising pick. He has spent three years with the Mavericks and has been a nominee for the Hobey Baker Award — given to the NCAA’s top hockey player — the last two years.

This season, he currently leads the NCAA in scoring, with 13 goals and 22 assists for 35 points in 24 games. Minnesota State is ranked No. 2 among all NCAA Div. I schools, with a record of 21-5-0, behind only Quinnipiac (16-1-3).

A look over Smith’s highlight-reel videos posted on social media shows a talented centre with a high hockey IQ, who is particularly dangerous around the net. At 6-1 and a 185 pounds, he’s solidly built, capable of competing in all areas of the ice.

It’s been quite a rise for the first player from Tampa Bay ever to be drafted to the NHL.

“I’d say my roots being in roller hockey, I just think the game that I play, having good vision and being creative on the ice and being confident in the way I played, mixed with always being in the weight room, that kind of separates a lot of kids from the others,” Smith said. “For kids back home in Tampa, if you want any advice, I would say that’s it. Getting in the weight room and just working hard every day; I mean, I work out four to five times a week.”

Between his hockey and school schedule, Smith said he hasn’t had much time to think about what’s next. He’s still got a pair of games against the University of St. Thomas and then Arizona State, before he jumps on a plane to L.A. at the end of the month to join his Olympic teammates.

As for his future beyond this season, including whether he plans to turn pro, Smith said it’s something that’s always in the back of his mind but that he’s got too many other things to take care of before considering any of his options seriously. Between bus rides and schoolwork and now preparing for the Olympics, he also doesn’t have a lot of time to keep up regularly on the Jets.

When he does get the chance to watch the team that drafted him, Smith said it’s an exciting brand of hockey. Time will only tell if he’ll ever don a Jets jersey, but he’s on the right path to living out his dream of playing in the NHL.

“They’re fun to watch,” Smith said. “So, I’m really looking forward to my future with them.”

Jeff.Hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.