VANCOUVER -- Like anyone new to Vancouver who loves adventure outside, Nate Schmidt sees the mountains and the ocean and endless possibilities.
“Guys talk about salmon fishing, and that would be so cool,” the Vancouver Canucks defenceman said. “I'd love to go whale watching, snowmobiling in the mountains. We're not allowed to go skiing, but maybe tubing. Could I go sledding? I think that's OK. A lot of outdoor stuff, which is what I love.”
Traded to the Canucks last fall by the Vegas Golden Knights, Schmidt, a Minnesotan, always wondered what it would be like to live in Vancouver. Now he knows — except he doesn’t.
NHL protocols in the season of COVID prevent players from doing most things the rest of us are able to do even with provincial health restrictions. Players can’t even go out for dinner.
The Canucks, who played more than anyone at the start of the season — 16 games in 27 nights — are suddenly on a six-day break that makes about as much sense as the rest of their 2021 schedule.
It probably comes too late in the shortened hockey season to do much good for the team, which stumbled its way into a deep hole with a 6-11-0 start and has been trying frantically, many would say hopelessly, to catch up in the Canadian division standings since then.
But players, as tired mentally as physically, finally get a chance to rest even if there are practices before they play the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.
“Take a breath,” Schmidt said this week in a Zoom call.
In an interview with Sportsnet before the Canucks’ break began, Schmidt said it has been difficult to get to know his new home city, which was always his favourite place to visit when he played for Vegas and the Washington Capitals.
Getting to know his new teammates, and especially their spouses and kids, has also been a problem.
“Eddie and I were talking the other night,” Schmidt said, referring to defence partner Alex Edler. “He said: ‘You know how wild it is that I haven't met Allie yet?’ I said: ‘Yeah, I haven't met your wife, your kids, nobody.’ It's been tough on that end. The beauty of sports is that you automatically get a family with your team.”
Usually, you do.
Allie Reinke, Schmidt’s partner, moved to Vancouver with him after the trade. They met at the University of Minnesota, although they didn’t go to school together. Schmidt was using his alma mater’s training facilities when he spotted Reinke, who was on the Gophers' women’s soccer team.
“We obviously didn't hit it off at that moment because she blew me off,” Schmidt laughed. “Then she blew me off again. Maybe once more after that.”
Reinke is a graphic designer, Schmidt said. She has been working out of their Yaletown condo.
“I’m not usually a huge walker but we’ve been doing a lot of seawall walks,” he said. “I like being by the water. I've been rocking the water taxis because it's outside and I'm still allowed to do that, which is fun, buzzing around.”
In the first month of the season, Schmidt seemed mostly to be buzzing around his own zone as the Canucks struggled to build structure and cohesiveness. Schmidt played both sides of the ice and there was a turnstyle of defence pairings as Vancouver bled scoring chances and goals, and coach Travis Green tried to find combinations that worked.
It wasn’t the start to the rest of his career that the 29-year-old Schmidt envisioned.
“I wanted to come in and showcase everything in my game in the first shift," he said. "I can do this, I can do that, let me show you all at once. But that's not hockey. It's letting the game come to you.
“With Braden here (former Washington Capitals teammate Braden Holtby), at least I had somebody to bounce things off of. You can talk to him, like: ‘I'm friggin bumming right now. I'm trying too hard. It's like quicksand; the harder I work, the worse it gets.’ You don't want to let your new teammates know that you're upset by how things have gone, maybe feeling a little bit vulnerable. I felt like there were a lot of games I was trying to do so much.
“That's why the game has gotten so much better for Alex and I over the last couple of weeks. We've both gotten to the point where we know what we expect out of each other. Those things mean so much to a pair, mean so much to your group. I feel so much more comfortable with him and how much we talk on the ice. Jordie Benn one game said: 'You guys are like a bickering old couple.’”
Schmidt said he took it as a compliment.
He and Edler have been paired since the Feb. 8 game in Toronto that started the uptick in Vancouver’s season. The Canucks dominated the Maple Leafs for two periods and still lost 3-1. But they started managing the puck better, played with more intensity and defensive structure.
The Canucks ended a six-game losing streak two games later, then went 10-5-3 before damaging their playoff chances by getting swept over a two-game span by Winnipeg.
Schmidt’s average ice time of 20:16 is down slightly from the 21:59 he logged in Vegas. With two goals and eight points in the past 18 games – after three points in his first 19 as a Canuck – Schmidt is starting to contribute to the attack like he did with the Golden Knights while filling a matchup role on defence that he became accustomed to in Vegas.
He loves playing with Edler, 34, but said he has had to tone down his on-ice chatter.
“It's kind of a bummer not having fans, for obvious reasons,” Schmidt said. “But it's also a bummer that you can hear everything. So if I call for a puck from Eddie, the other guy (from the opposing team) is coming over. If I yell ‘wall,’ all of sudden their guy peels off and he's like: 'Sorry, man, I literally heard the call so I went there.’
“I'm not talking like a standard D-to-D (pass). Most of the time it's on the breakout when you use your terminology for however you want to play it. If there's time when I call it, their other guy is coming over. So sometimes, we've had to kind of adapt to it so I can't call it right away. I have to be late so that they’re not sitting there picking apart what you're saying.”
During the interview, Schmidt asked the reporter questions about his family. He said he likes to know about people he deals with. Even 37 games into the season, Schmidt said he still doesn’t know his teammates as well as he’d like.
“I’m a people person,” he said. “Social stuff is usually my forte. At this point of the year ... all the things that you would have gotten already (in a normal season) hasn't happened. Halloween party, Christmas get-togethers -- the stuff where you really kind of get to know everybody. I’m still getting to know guys at the rink but we're not really allowed to be together. It's just hard to get to the grassroots of somebody and really get to know who they are.
“I don't like to play video games as much as I have been, but it's almost like you don't have a choice if you want to interact. I'm that guy who will literally play anything you're playing just to be in a group again. It could be Call of Duty, could be Fortnite, could be Madden, NBA, whatever. I'm mediocre at all of them.”
Schmidt said what the team needed, but couldn’t get, more than anything during its difficult start was just a night out together on the road.
“Like, ‘OK, guys, local pub, 20 minutes, let's go,’” he said. “Just sit there and talk through things. But the protocols kind of forced you into isolation from the guys. It really kind of forced you just to stew on your own thoughts.”
As Schmidt said, those aren’t always positive.
He has probably been the Canucks’ best defenceman after Quinn Hughes. He’s finding his game, still getting to know teammates and a new city. But after the past five seasons in Las Vegas and Washington, Schmidt is also looking at missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time.
“I’m a competitive S.O.B.,” he said. “You always want to push yourself to be trusted in situations. As a new guy, though, that trust and those relationships are still building.
“This is the first time I've gone through this. This is the first time I've really been in a position where you’re fighting and clawing like we are now. That's been something that's been, you know, different. It gives you a new perspective on how important each game is.”
And how much it takes to win.