Minnesota Defenseman Breaks Through
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
MINNEAPOLIS During his freshman season, Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt got to know the inside of the Golden Gopher players lounge a little too well.
A fine room just steps from the locker room at Mariucci Arena, the players lounge can be a relaxing place midweek.
The problem for Schimdt was, last season, he found himself there far too often on Friday and Saturday nights.
Upon arriving on campus in the fall of 2010, Schmidt had high hopes for himself. He had just come off a 14-goal, 37-point season for the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League. Two years prior, he was one of the top recruits in Minnesota high school hockey.
Schmidt had transformed himself from a shutdown, defensive-defenseman into a two-way threat capable of being a big-time player on both ends of the rink.
And then his freshman season happened.
Expected to log serious minutes, Schmidt struggled early and never got on track, playing in just 13 games last season — many of which came at forward when Minnesota struggled with injuries mid-season.
And in those games he wasn't playing in, which was most of them, Schmidt found himself watching the games on television in the lounge.
It was a low point, not only in his hockey career, but in his life.
"My role as a player has changed over the last four years so dramatically," Schmidt said. "It's almost a complete 180-turn. When I got here, I thought that progression off juniors would continue. I thought I had a pretty good year up there.
"It was a mind-blowing experience. You get here and you want to play. You think you can make a difference and then all the aspects don't fall into place. It was tough — one of the toughest things I've had to endure as a person."
Gophers coach Don Lucia said Schmidt showed up his first year, perhaps not knowing what the daily grind of the WCHA might be like. He wasn't in good enough shape. He had some extra weight in the wrong places. He struggled early, lost confidence, and eventually lost his spot.
"I think he learned how hard you have to work," Lucia said. "He learned how important the off-ice conditioning was, re-doing his body, cutting some weight and getting leaner."
Despite the struggles — and off-season rumors of a transfer or a move to Canadian juniors — Schmidt said leaving never crossed his mind.
"I love it here. I love what this place is all about," Schmidt said. "I wanted to get it done, and I wanted to get it done here. That was the big thing."
His turning point came last summer after Taylor Matson was named captain. The oft-injured center hadn't put up great numbers in his three seasons as a Gopher, but was an absolute warrior off the ice and in the weight room.
Schmidt said following him is what got him back on track.
"He's one of the most hard-working guys I've ever seen. That's who I try and model myself after this summer," Schmidt said. "I'm really glad that I did. Taylor is an unbelievable guy, and when you follow him around, you pick up on key aspects as a player and as a person as well."
When things got tough, he remembered spending game night, not on the bench, but from the lonely confines of a couch, buried deep within the bowels of Mariucci Arena.
"I took a mental picture, and told myself I never wanted to watch another game from the player's lounge again," Schmidt said. "It was one of the things that drove me [during the summer]. I never want to do it again in my life."
Entering this season, Lucia had eight defensemen on his blueline. Only Seth Helgeson, a junior, was an upperclassman. Schmidt and Mark Alt headlined a five-man sophomore class while Ben Marshall and Blake Thompson were the incoming freshmen.
"Last spring, I knew we were going to be a little thin back there," Lucia said. "We have two good guys coming in next year and we may not lose anybody, so I knew we were going to have to rely on these guys. They were going to have to perform."
Picked to finish sixth by both the media and the coaches, the inexperience on the Minnesota blueline was a major reason why. Everybody knew it, including the group themselves. Considered the weak link on an otherwise strong team, Schmidt said the group used the low expectations to their advantage, along with the valuable addition — or perhaps re-addition — of assistant coach Mike Guentzel.
"Coach Guentzel said it at one of the first practices of the year: We've had a struggling 'D' corps the last couple of years, and this year was going to have to be different in order for us to be successful," Schmidt said. "We knew we had a lot of talented forwards, we knew we had a great goaltender coming back. We were the question mark."
In a way, Schmidt's turnaround is indicative of the Gophers themselves. Forgotten by most, little was expected from Schmidt this season.
By the end of the first game of the year against Sacred Heart, Schmidt had already doubled his entire point total from his freshman season. He started the year on a four-game point streak, tallying six assists through four games before scoring a goal and adding a pair of helpers Oct. 23 against Vermont.
His season — and his career — were finally off and running.
"It was one of the things we talked to Nate about. He was going to have to put in the time in the weight room and get his conditioning level up. And if that happened, he would be given an opportunity to play," Lucia said. "He'd have to play himself out of a position and not into it. That gave him confidence going into the season and he was like a different person out there.
"He's gotten to play a lot, got some confidence, and now we see the player we hoped he would be."
By the time the regular season concluded, Schmidt's 35 assists were best in the nation among all defensemen. He enters the Frozen Four on a six-game point streak, including two assists March 24 in the regional semifinals against Boston University and the primary assist on the game winner the next night against North Dakota in the regional final.
With all of his own struggles behind him, Schmidt looks towards this week in Tampa as a chance to put an exclamation point on the Gophers — and his — season of redemption.
"This year has surpassed anything I could have imagined," Schmidt said. "I'm really happy that it has. For years to come, it ups the ante a little more. If you're satisfied, you'll never grow as a player."