Tampa Bay area hockey player searching for unlikely Olympic gold

Even when Mitchell High graduate Nathan Smith received the call telling him he would be an Olympian, it took time for the realization to sink in.

Smith, a junior forward at Minnesota State who currently leads NCAA Division I men’s hockey in scoring, knew he had a chance of playing in the Winter Games when the NHL announced its players wouldn’t be traveling to Beijing.

Smith’s name began appearing on some of Team USA’s roster predictions, and his college coach, Mike Hastings, an assistant for the national team, told Smith he was under serious consideration.

“I was like, OK, that’s cool, whatever,” Smith said. “But there’s a lot of good players in this country, and even playing pro in other countries, too. So I didn’t want to get too high. I didn’t want to get too excited about it. … I was like, there’s a chance, but it’s still kind of a long shot for me just being from Florida.”

Then, Smith, 23, received a call from Team USA general manager John Vanbiesbrouck telling him him he was on the team.

“I definitely kind of had to take a step back and take a deep breath real quick,” Smith said. “And even then, I didn’t really know what to say. … But I’m really grateful that I’m getting this opportunity to go, and I’m super excited.”

Roller hockey roots

His first calls were to his father, Eric, and his mother, Kelly.

“It literally just took me to tears,” Kelly Smith said. “I just couldn’t fathom the idea of ​​what he was going to experience. And it definitely took me back to him being 6 years old, to think about all the things that this kid has done and accomplished and gone through, all the trials and tribulations.”

The first pair of skates Smith put on weren’t ice skates. They were inline skates, and he began playing roller hockey at since-closed All-Sports Arena in New Port Richey. When he was 10, he switched to ice hockey with the Tampa Scorpions youth program and later the Lightning High School Hockey League.

Most kids who grow up playing hockey in Florida eventually end up going north for better competition and greater exposure. But Smith stayed. He played one season at River Ridge before helping lead Mitchell to a national championship during his junior year. That season, he racked up 86 points while double shifting because the team didn’t have enough players for four lines.

After the first of his two seasons of junior hockey with Cedar Rapids of the United States Hockey League, Smith became the first graduate of a Tampa Bay area high school to be selected by an NHL team, taken by the Winnipeg Jets in the third round of the 2018 draft.

“My roots being in roller hockey, I think just the game that I play, just having good vision and being creative on the ice and just kind of being confident in the way I play, mixed with I was always in the weight room, I think that kind of separated a lot of kids from from the others,” Smith said.

‘He was a rink rat’

The timing was right for Smith, said his youth and high school coach, Ralph Sowder. Smith started high school hockey right around the time the Lightning took control of the high school league, and the organization helped make it affordable for young players, assisting with ice costs and other resources. They helped the local travel teams, like the Scorpions, by partnering with them rather than competing with them.

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With the Scorpions, Smith benefitted from training at Xtra Ice, where he could hone his skills on smaller, micro rinks. In high school, he partnered with Sowder’s son, Lucas, to form the county’s top scoring duo. The two boys had played together since they were 6 and were reunited as teammates at Minnesota State.

But it was Smith’s passion for the game that stood out most.

“He was a rink rat,” Ralph Sowder said. “If there was a way to get on the ice, he was on the ice. If he put in six hours that day playing just pick-up games, he’d go home and shoot 200 shots in the driveway. He just had that much dedication, and he was already a great athlete in anything he does, but he just loved hockey.”

Kelly Smith said there are still dents in the garage door at the family’s home in Hudson and holes in the garage drywall from her son’s constant shooting.

“I think there might be one still stuck there, right in through the drywall,” Smith said. “The kid, he just shot pucks all day. … It was eat, breathe, sleep.”

Now, Smith — who leads Division I scorers with 41 points and 1.46 points per game this season — has temporarily left top-ranked Minnesota State to play in Beijing. The US opens play with a qualifying-round game Thursday against China (8:10 am EST). Play continues through the gold medal game on Feb. 20.

Smith’s family wasn’t able to travel to Beijing because the games are being held without families in attendance. China is 13 hours ahead, so Kelly Smith had her alarm set for 5:30 am Friday to watch the opening ceremonies. Shortly, after she woke up, she received a text from her son.

“Hey Mom, are you awake?”

“I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I’m awake,” she said. “… I already know 11 p m. for one of the games, and we have a family watch party planned. So yeah, I’m not missing a thing. If it was 3 am, I’d be there.”

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