ST. PAUL — Standing outside the deathly quiet Winnipeg Jets locker room, drenched in sweat, Nate Schmidt wore a look of exhaustion and even bewilderment. Playing his first game in his home state for his newest NHL team, Schmidt and the Jets had just somehow come from comfortably ahead to lose to the red-hot Minnesota Wild in overtime.

But even in perhaps his toughest moment with his fourth pro hockey team, it didn’t take long for Schmidt’s famous grin to come out. Yes, the Jets had just lost a game they had every reason to win, and yes, they would head back to Manitoba still looking for their first victory, but for Nate Schmidt, life is never too bad for too long.

“The season hasn’t started the way we wanted to, but I also think we’ve been a lot closer in games,” Schmidt said. “We’re an offside goal tonight away from winning the game. That’s just hockey for you. So far, the way this team is built, you look forward to getting into a groove as a player, especially with this locker room.”

Winnipeg Jets defenseman Nate Schmidt (88) skates with the puck while Minnesota Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov (97) defends in the first period Oct, 19, 2021 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. David Berding / USA TODAY Sports
Winnipeg Jets defenseman Nate Schmidt (88) skates with the puck while Minnesota Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov (97) defends in the first period Oct, 19, 2021 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. David Berding / USA TODAY Sports

Man on the move

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It is his third different locker room in as many seasons. After being an original member of the Vegas Golden Knights and playing in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final with them, Schmidt was traded to Vancouver in October 2020. The season with the Canucks was memorable for all the wrong reasons for the 30-year-old from St. Cloud.

The team wasn’t good, and their season was interrupted by a long battle with COVID in the locker room. When the Jets traded for Schmidt and fellow defenseman Brendan Dillon in late July, it felt like a perfect time for a new start.

Playing youth and high school hockey in St. Cloud, junior hockey in Fargo and college hockey with the Gophers, Schmidt got used to places where the game is a big part of the culture. Then he signed with the Washington Capitals out of college and spent the first four years of his pro career in a place where there is passion for the game, but not deep roots.

From there it was off to Vegas for three years, where hockey was the new thing and an immediate hit in the Nevada desert. Now with his second Canadian team, Schmidt admits that the hockey culture in Winnipeg — which is also one of the NHL’s smallest and definitely coldest markets — is more familiar to a kid with roots in the State of Hockey.

“Hockey really is just ingrained, much like it is in Minnesota,” Schmidt said. “People know the game and know what’s going on. They understand the small little plays you make that might go unnoticed in other places. I’m right back in the hockey community, which is awesome. It’s cool to see the amount of support we get and the amount of energy you get from being in that kind of market.”

Fargo's Nate Schmidt reacts after getting an assist on a Force goal as Omaha goalie Jeff Teglia looks back into the net in the second period Wednesday in Fargo.Dave Wallis / The Forum
Fargo's Nate Schmidt reacts after getting an assist on a Force goal as Omaha goalie Jeff Teglia looks back into the net in the second period Wednesday in Fargo.Dave Wallis / The Forum

Closer to home

NHL players are usually on the hook for several tickets for friends and family when they return to their home state or province. But for Schmidt’s first game back in Minnesota wearing the Jets jersey, his sister took care of all of those arrangements. All he needed to do was show up and play.

On the ice, Schmidt forced a turnover that led to a third period power play for Winnipeg, then assisted on the man-advantage goal that gave his team a late lead. And as much as he focused on what was happening inside the glass, Schmidt admitted that it was enjoyable to see familiar faces in the sellout crowd at Xcel Energy Center.

“I don’t usually crowd-surf very often, but my dad has a U of M pullover that he’s had forever and I looked up and saw it and it was like an eye roll,” Schmidt said, with his signature broad smile. “There he is. I pointed him out in the third period.”

Schmidt talked to family before getting on a northbound Air Canada plane for the one-hour flight back to Winnipeg. Later in the week, the Jets would blast past Anaheim for their first win, despite another former Gophers star — forward Blake Wheeler — sitting out due to a positive COVID test.

Of all the numbers Schmidt has put up in his career, perhaps the most amazing one is the fact that he and Dillon have each played 454 NHL games. It seems to most Gophers fans like it wasn’t that long ago that Schmidt was manning the blue line at 3M Arena at Mariucci, and now he’s one of the true veteran defenseman on a promising NHL team.

“Sometimes it scares me a little bit when I see that, but I’ve enjoyed my time in the league and you look back and see how fast nine years goes, it’s crazy,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes I can’t believe that guys who are 30 years old are the elder statesmen on the back end, but that just goes to show the good young players and the bright future we have as well.”

Playing back in hockey country, that Nate Schmidt smile is just a little brighter.