By age 10, most players on the Minnesota State men’s hockey team were already well into their hockey careers, likely dreaming about being where they are today.
In Minnesota and other traditional hockey areas, it’s not uncommon for kids to put on skates as early as 2, and organized hockey oftentimes starts at 5.
For MSU’s Nathan Smith, a native of the Tampa, Fla. area, MSU, the NHL and ice hockey in general couldn’t have been further from his mind at that age.
It just wasn’t what Florida kids did.
However, when a neighborhood friend introduced him to street hockey at 6, something just clicked. After five years of playing roller hockey, Smith finally made the transition to ice hockey at 11.
“Once I got into it, I realized that I liked the contact and the speed of the game,” Smith said. “It was just constantly going instead of something like football. There’s contact, but you stop after 5-10 seconds and I just didn’t like that.”
As you’d expect, there weren’t a lot of scouts watching youth and high school hockey games in Florida. Smith played high school hockey, but he also spent a lot of time traveling to tournaments throughout the country with hopes of being noticed by juniors teams.
He eventually landed with the United States Hockey League’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, where he posted 100 points in 110 games over two seasons.
After committing to play at MSU, Smith was the 91st pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft by the Winnipeg Jets.
“I was a big (Tampa Bay) Lighting fan, but I never even thought of playing ice hockey, (let alone) playing in the NHL,” Smith said. “I never thought it would lead to where I’m at.”
In his second season at MSU, there’s been no sophomore slump for Smith. He’s third on the team with 13 points and was recently nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, along with linemate Cade Borchardt and goaltender Dryden McKay.
Smith leads the Mavericks with 11 assists and has been described by coach Mike Hastings as someone who “passes like a pro.” Smith has always enjoyed setting up teammates more than scoring but acknowledged that he probably needs to look to get his shot off a little more, which is music to Hastings’ ears.
“More often than not, when a guy doesn’t shoot a puck, it’s usually because he’s not comfortable. ... That’s not Nathan,” Hastings said. “If you look shot first and they have to defend your shot, that will open lanes to other people.”
Smith added: “I always tell myself before each game, ‘I’ve got to shoot more, I’ve got to shoot more.’ It just depends on each scenario in the game ... but I do want to shoot more.”
As a skater, Smith is both fast and powerful and is nearly impossible to knock off the puck. Around the team, he’s known as a weight room warrior, and it’s a big reason why he’s such a highly regarded professional prospect.
“If you really want to upset Smitty, tell him he can’t work out. It’s as much as brushing his teeth and getting dressed in the morning. He needs his workout,” Hastings said. “That’s a self-motivating quality of that young man.
“That work ethic, from that standpoint, sometimes gets in the way of other players reaching their potential. That’s not going to be the case with Nathan.”
Five things to know
The No. 6 Mavericks (9-2-1) will host No. 8 Bowling Green (16-4) in a WCHA series Friday and Saturday.
Here are five things to know about the matchup.
1. Critical series: With the Mavericks sitting in first place in the WCHA, only two points ahead of the Falcons in the standings, what happens this weekend will have a lot to say about who wins the MacNaughton Cup. MSU hasn’t gotten to play any nonconference games against top-ranked teams, so a pair of games with the Falcons will be a great measuring stick.
2. Injury updates: Riese Zmolek, Todd Burgess and Reggie Lutz each missed last week’s game at Bemidji State, and Jake Jaremko left the contest in the first period with an injury and didn’t return. Hastings said each of those four have been skating in practice this week, but there’s still nothing official for the weekend.
Hastings did offer this comment after Friday’s loss at Bemidji.
“If today’s a playoff game, you might have seen a different lineup,” Hastings said.
3. McKay’s big week continues: MSU goaltender Dryden McKay’s big week continued Thursday when he was named HCA co-national Goaltender of the Month for January. Earlier in the week, he was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award and appeared on the Richter Award watchlist for top goaltenders.
4. The state of MSU: MSU is coming off arguably its worst game of the season, a 4-1 nonconference loss at Bemidji State. It was a disappointing loss, but with McKay out of the net and several key players injured, it seemed like a tough spot for MSU on the road.
The Mavericks return to WCHA play this week, where they have outscored opponents 26-3 in six conference games. The power play, which went 0 for 5 at Bemidji, is still at 30.4% for the season, and will look to get back on track against the Falcons.
5. Scouting the Falcons: Seniors Brandon Kruse, Cameron Wright and Connor Ford each average more than a point per game. Those three lead a Falcons team that averages 4.0 goals per game, which ranks among the top-five in the country. Luck has been on Bowling Green’s side, as it leads the nation with 20 games played. The Falcons enter the weekend having played back-to-back days in five consecutive weeks, while the Mavericks have only played back-to-back games in consecutive weeks once this season.
Follow Kevin Dudley on Twitter @Dudley7Kevin.