Nate Schmidt’s patented ear-to-ear grin says all you need to know about the Winnipeg Jets defenseman: On the ice or off, he’s having fun.
“If you’re not having fun playing hockey, why even play, right?” the St. Cloud native and former Gopher said. “Hockey life is short, and it’s only a small part of life – you’re best off having fun with it. The rest will fall in line.”
For Schmidt, that’s not just an in-season priority.
From Da Beauty League to summer sports to the utmost importance of taking a break, Schmidt fills us in on how he and other NHLers spend their summer months.
Minnesota Hockey: First things first: the hockey offseason, what has that always looked like for you?
Nate Schmidt: Honestly I was playing every sport I could and doing as much as I could. My dad had this rule that if we didn’t go to sports, you had to work, so for me it was hockey, baseball, football, soccer, I even picked up track and field on Saturday mornings. Any event they could put me in so I didn’t have to go to work – long jumping, hurdles. There was a time I ran through a hurdle once. I didn’t care, anything and everything I could get my hands on I wanted to play.
Minnesota Hockey: Aside from dodging work, why play so many other sports and not just stick to one?
Schmidt: I just think it keeps you well-rounded when you’re doing that. Especially nowadays, when people want you so focused on hockey or baseball or football. Taking a break keeps your mind fresh and keeps it fun. You get to meet new people. Some of my closest friends are my baseball buddies I went to high school with.
Even today with hockey as a job, I am doing more than just playing hockey. I played in a softball game the other day, I go play golf or pickleball – I try to do as much as I can because it keeps yourself athletic. The more athletic you can be, the better off you’re going to be in hockey.
Minnesota Hockey: Why do you think there seems to be a bigger emphasis on specialization so early?
Schmidt: I think everyone’s so focused on not falling behind, especially in their particular sport. But when you’re doing that, I think you lose the idea of what hand-eye coordination does when you look at from baseball to hockey or football to soccer with feet and all these other things that you can use to your advantage.
I always played a little bit of hockey in the summer with a few tournaments or games, but never full-blown like kids today do. I even notice that when I coach with the Minnesota Hockey CCM High Performance Boys 15s, when I first started about nine years ago, on Day 1, everyone was super rusty. Now on Day 1, you can tell who had ice and has been playing and who the ones without access to ice were.
But the thing is, by Day 3 or 4, everyone is back on the same page. It only takes a couple of days to catch up again – it’s not like you’re going to lose it over the summer.
Minnesota Hockey: You’re sprinkling in hockey now with Da Beauty League at Braemar – why do that when you only have a few weeks to take a break?
Schmidt: We play hockey as a job now, so we’re on the ice a little bit more. It’s two-fold though for us: guys really enjoy coming because it’s fun, and you get to give back and see the kids and taking pictures when you can and it’s just fun. Plus, there’s so many guys around here, you get to reconnect with a lot of your buddies.
The second thing is, it’s really a great competitive league. At times when you’re watching it looks like we’re just messing around but if you look closely, it’s kind of like, guys want to win, and they don’t want to look bad, and so guys are trying so much harder not to look bad. It gets competitive but it’s competitive in the right and fun environment.
Minnesota Hockey: Does the lack of structure help you enjoy the offseason?
Schmidt: Absolutely. My biggest tip to kids is, whatever you do, don’t always play it organized. When I was in 3rd and 4th grade, my friends and I would go up to this neighborhood dirt field and just play baseball until it got dark. In the winter we would flood and bring our skates to play all night until we couldn’t feel our toes. That’s where you pick up things you can’t always do at practice when someone is like, ‘hey, you have to do this, or I’m going to blow the whistle and start this drill.’ There’s a time and place for that, but you can’t make mistakes and not worry about it at practice. You find that failure in the unorganized games. And failing at something doesn’t mean you’re always going to fail. You can fail at something and still be good at it someday.
Minnesota Hockey: Minnesota has produced some of the best players in the world – as Da Beauty League reminds us – why do you think that is?
Schmidt: Minnesota Hockey is so great at the community-based model and playing with your friends for as long as possible. When you’re playing with your friends, there’s that push that everyone wants to get better. It forces you to work harder. And in Minnesota where the competition is so good, it raises that level you push yourself. Plus, the competition makes it fun.
Minnesota Hockey: Any other advice?
Schmidt: Outside of trying to hammer playing other sports, I do just think it’s so important to get out and do other things as much as you can. It doesn’t matter if you’re out fishing all summer, just do something you love.