If you need any proof that art sometimes actually does imitate life, you should dig back and find a segment called “NHL Superlatives” on the May 11, 2016, episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It’s kind of a goofy bit, where they bring up photos of random players and make fun of them. When Nate Schmidt’s bio photo from the Washington Capitals came up, Fallon declared him “most likely to puke rainbows out of his mouth.” Then Fallon asked to see the photo again, and this time it was altered to bug out Schmidt’s eyes, give him rosy cheeks and have a rainbow streaming out of his mouth like vomit – as seen in the popular Snapchat filter.
So here was some comedy writer in New York who probably knew almost nothing about hockey and even less about Nate Schmidt going through photos thinking this one might be good for a laugh. But what is absolutely remarkable about it is that it nails Schmidt to a ‘T.’ Because if it were humanly possible to puke rainbows, Schmidt would projectile vomit a multicolored arc every time he opened his gob. Even Schmidt acknowledges that if he had to describe himself to someone, he would simply hold up that photo and say, “This is me.” Between Schmidt and former Caps teammate T.J. Oshie, every day was always the best day in the history of the world. Which is all well and good, but it can get on people’s nerves a little, too, so Schmidt and his teammates had a tacit understanding. “A couple of the guys gave me a safe word if I was getting too excited,” Schmidt said. And what exactly was that word? “That’s going to stay with me. Brooks Orpik, if you ever get a chance, he’s the one who originated it. Sometimes I would just get too excited, and he would just go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, take a deep breath, just relax a little bit.’ ”
Relax a little bit? Are you kidding? Who has time to relax in Nate Schmidt’s world? He’s too busy wringing every little bit out of life and an unlikely NHL career. He’s a little occupied at the moment, anchoring the blueline for the Vegas Golden Knights, the most dynamic and what will probably become the most successful expansion team in NHL history. He’s leading the team in ice time and shifts per game. And when he’s not playing hockey, Schmidt is busy being the NHL’s Renaissance Man. If he’s not swing dancing with his girlfriend, he might be winning his family’s annual beanbag tossing championship, held every summer back home in Minnesota. Or if he’s in a particularly reflective mood, he might be actually kicking up his feet and reading about Thomas Jefferson.
But all of it is done with a purpose – to learn something or get the most out of an experience. After parts of four seasons with the Capitals – where he was signed as a college free agent by former Washington GM George McPhee – Schmidt has landed in Vegas and been a huge part of the biggest surprise story in the hockey world this season. The way Schmidt sees it, if not for his good fortune in being discovered, he might be back home running Schmidty’s Gas and Convenience, a chain of family-run stores in Minnesota. (Although the fact he got his business management degree in just a little more than three years from the University of Minnesota and was part of a small group of students who played the market and managed their own investments suggests he might have been destined for something bigger. “At the time Under Armour was really good for me for a while,” he said. “It’s taken a little bit of a beating lately.”)
The point is, Schmidt is 26 years old but still has a refreshing naivete about him. Almost every player who has made it to the NHL has a sincere appreciation for his circumstances, but Schmidt really still cherishes the fact that someone is willing to pay him to play this game. And after being awarded $2.25 million per season on a two-year deal in arbitration last summer, that paycheque has a few more zeros in it now. “This game is finite,” he said. “It will end some day. So try and have as much fun while you’re doing it while you can.”
In a perfect world for the Caps, Schmidt wouldn’t even be playing in Vegas. Washington tried to avoid sacrificing Schmidt in the expansion draft, but Capitals-turned-Golden-Knights GM McPhee knew the player he was getting. There was often the notion that Schmidt was always swimming upstream with the Caps, never quite able to break through to the security of a regular role. That is not the problem in Vegas, where Schmidt has emerged from a crowded blueline corps to become the top dog. “He’s got the two things we’re looking for, ability and some real upside,” McPhee said. “He was the No. 1 choice. We’d like to have him playing for us for the next 10 years.”
The sounds good to Schmidt, who was one of the team’s leading voices in the wake of the shooting massacre that occurred in Las Vegas just prior to the start of the season. McPhee said that when he and his staff were scouring rosters looking for players, they were looking for those with both playing ability and personality, and Schmidt fits on both counts. And with his skating and willingness to jump into the play offensively, he fits the template the Golden Knights are trying to establish of becoming a relentless team that plays with a quick tempo.
If Schmidt manages to stick around, Vegas fans will cling to him. When he was in Washington, the Capitals had a video segment called ‘Schminute’ in which Schmidt would pretty much just be himself. He said he hears talk that might be revived in Vegas. “I haven’t thrown out all my bags of tricks just yet,” he said. “You don’t want to give them too much at once.”