VANCOUVER – When he got the call Monday that he had been traded by the team he loved and wanted to play for forever, Nate Schmidt was sitting in a truck out in a field at his uncle’s farm near St. Cloud, Minn.
He was stunned and emotional. But it was the perfect place for Schmidt to be, near his family, girlfriend and some of his oldest buddies.
The hurt was still evident the next morning when on his video call with reporters covering his new team, the Vancouver Canucks, the 29-year-old was asked about leaving Las Vegas and the Golden Knights, who helped heal that city when the expansion team opened its first National Hockey League season a few days after the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting of 471 people at a music festival just off the famous Vegas Strip.
You don’t ever leave something like that behind. If you care about people, you can’t.
“We healed together,” Schmidt said. “I was down on The Strip that night. It was crazy, something I’ll never forget. You remember things like it was yesterday. You feel a bond in that moment. You’re part of the fabric in the community. That’s what you remember most.”
Later, in a phone interview with Sportsnet, Schmidt explained: “Vegas, you were there from the beginning. We went through an outrageous tragedy. It was really just about being part of the community. We cancelled practice (after the shooting) and were like, we’ve got to get out there and do what we can, go to the blood drive. There were things like that. You’re going to miss that.
“The trade was really tough. It’s very emotional when it happens. It’s hard sometimes to see the bigger picture and the opportunity presenting itself in the (first few) hours after that. It was difficult. For me, I found out when it happened, and that was it. That’s the hardest thing to come to terms with. It takes time for that initial shock to wear off to (say), ‘Hey, this is where we’re going. This is what’s happening.’ That’s when you can start building that excitement, you can start thinking about what the next step is.”
In Washington, where general manager George McPhee signed Schmidt as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota years before both ended up in Vegas, the Capitals liked to say there was “happy” and there was “Nate Schmidt happy.”
Nate Schmidt happy, for those lucky enough to see it, is on another level. The defenceman is one of the most ebullient, talkative and thoughtful players in the NHL.
Seriously, just go to HockeyDB.com and look at Schmidt’s smiling mug. Try to be that happy.
Even while still processing his shock trade by Vegas, which was desperate enough for salary-cap space it surrendered its 22-minute-a-night defenceman to the Canucks for a third-round draft pick just one year into Schmidt’s six-year, $35.7-million contract extension, the Minnesotan was brimming with energy Tuesday. He was quick to laugh, and had probably the most engaging player Zoom call since the global pandemic hit the NHL in March.
He was delighted that a reporter who covered the Canucks-Knights playoff series in Edmonton without fans picked up Schmidt’s habit of “whooping” to call for the puck rather than yelling, like words, to teammates. Truthfully, we think some people outside Rogers Place could also hear Schmidt.
“If guys hear it, they know it’s me,” he said. “And it’s always really loud and piercing.”
He was self-deprecating, generous in his praise for Canucks players and Vancouver, which he said has always been his favourite NHL city to visit. Schmidt said later he has never had the Canucks on his 10-team no-trade list.
He called Canuck Brock Boeser, a fellow Minnesotan who plays summer hockey with Schmidt in the Twin Cities, a “good egg.”
He said he remembered Vancouver star Elias Pettersson “spinning me into a top.”
He said goalie Thatcher Demko’s performance in pushing the Knights to seven games in the Western Conference semifinal “really put a hurt on our mojo.”
And he marvelled at Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes, a likely partner for Schmidt when next season begins.
“His hips swivel,” he said. “That’s how he shakes and bakes on the blue line. As much as I want to do that, I don’t have it. I don’t think anyone has that in their game the way Quinn Hughes does. I can get maybe one hip going. It’s a very rare talent to have, and it’s really fun to watch.”
Asked about his positive outlook, Schmidt said it’s just the way he was raised by his parents, JoAnn and Tom, in St. Cloud.
The family started a convenience store-gas station chain in Central Minnesota when the three kids were old enough to provide cheap labour.
“Schmidty’s Snacks and Gas,” Nate said. “Or just Schmidty’s. That’s where I grew up working and I’m the youngest, so I always got all the jobs no one else wanted. I cleaned out the canopies for bugs, cleaned the car wash. Car washes are actually one of the grossest places you can think of because of all the dirt and grime. I’d power wash that, paint the gas islands, scrub them down with a wire brush.
“My mom and dad preached to treat people the way you want to be treated. I always try to treat people with respect and just the way I’d want them to treat me. It’s just kind of the way I am. I like being invested in what I’m doing and the people who are invested in me as well.”
In a way, it’s a wonderful thing that Schmidt was “wounded” so much by the Vegas trade because it shows how much he cared about his team and community. It means he could grow to care just as much about the Canucks and Vancouver.
The nearest thing he owns to Canucks blue is a decade-old sweatshirt from the Fargo Force, the United States Hockey League team Schmidt played for before starting university, so he pulled that out of a drawer for his Zoom call.
“Honestly, it’s been a huge help how many guys have reached out to me,” he said. “And having (former Capital) Braden Holtby there – he’s one of my best friends in hockey – it makes it a lot easier.
“I’ve been talking to some of the guys in Vancouver and one of the best things and one of the things I’ve heard about the most is how tightly knit the group was. That’s what gets you excited about what the future holds for you. I hope the guys aren’t too sensitive about me being too loud and goofy sometimes in the locker room. I guess that’s what I’m most afraid of.”
Not the constant, unyielding attention of playing on what Schmidt described as hockey’s biggest stage?
“I guess it’s TBD,” he said. “That first year in Vegas, we were kind of rockstars as well. Not the same kind of rockstars that hockey players are in Canada, but you understand what comes with it. There are a lot of people who know hockey and are avid fans. But if you win, you’re looked at it like it’s forever in Canada. That’s awesome.”
Just wait until he really warms up to the idea.