The 2010-11 season could hardly have ended worse, or more abruptly, for Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt and his Golden Gopher teammates. He was a healthy scratch for the playoffs (in which the Gophers were swept at home by Alaska Anchorage) after playing just 13 of Minnesota’s 35 games last season, recording one assist (in a tournament game versus Ferris State—something Gopher fans hope is a bit of ironic foreshadowing).
A year later, Schmidt and his mates are prepping for the school’s first Frozen Four trip since 2005, and his numbers serve as a microcosm of the difference a season can make. Schmidt has played in all 42 of the Gophers games and has a trio of goals added to a whopping 38 assists (three of them during West Regional wins over Boston University and North Dakota), which places him in the top six all-time for best offensive seasons by a Gopher defenseman.
Schmidt is a chatty one, quickly becoming a fan and media favorite in the Twin Cities for his broad smile and natural gift of gab. So he was the obvious choice for INCH to talk with this week about the energy on the team, the influence of a new assistant coach, and how exactly one prepares to go to the tropics and play hockey there.
Jess Myers: What has the past week been like, getting ready for the Frozen Four and the trip to Florida?
Nate Schmidt: It’s been an exciting week. Lots of energy and a lot of buzz around campus, around our team, and around the program. It’s been fun as it has set in that we’re going to the Frozen Four and to Tampa, which is one of those goals we had at the start of the year. It’s been an interesting week, especially having this week off, which is kind of tough. We’re trying to stay as game-ready as possible.
INCH: After last season ended so abruptly with those playoff losses to Alaska Anchorage, did your team honestly believe that you were close to something like this?
NS: The expectation around our program is to be where we are now each and every year. Granted, it doesn’t always happen. Certain problems arise sometimes and we just don’t get there. After the season last year it was tough. You’re thinking, ‘Where could we be?’ I think we had a good foundation of guys. We lost some seniors but we knew we had a guy like Kent Patterson coming back and he was a backbone at the end of the season last year and obviously one of the most important parts of the team this year. Our freshman class with (Nick) Bjugstad and (Erik) Haula and the juniors who are now seniors were all hard-working guys and were in it with a team-first mentality. So I think we had the basis of being where we are right now. It was just whether or not we were going to work hard enough and mesh as a team. I think we’ve meshed really well as far as chemistry and guys have stepped up into different roles to enhance our team chemistry throughout the entire year.
INCH: A lot has been made about assistant coach Mike Guentzel returning to the program. As one of the guys on the blue line, what has he meant on the bench and in the room?
NS: He’s a complete energy guy. He bleeds maroon and gold and you love to have those kinds of guys around. He holds all of our defensemen accountable with certain parts of the game—blocking shots, takeaways, giveaways, getting shots through on the offensive side. He really brings a lot of wealth of knowledge to the table. One thing that I really enjoy from him is he’s a straight-shooter type and will let you know where you stand. He doesn’t have any mirrors or clouds of mist around him. You know what you’re going to get each and every day, but still each day is a new experience with Coach Guentzel.
INCH: Have you been to Florida, and have you played hockey there, before?
NS: I’ve been to Florida before, but this will be my inaugural game in Florida. Haula said this is Minnesota’s inaugural game there, so there are a couple of firsts for everybody around here.
INCH: How do you prepare? Are you going to the tanning booth or anything?
NS: (Laughs) You know there is a tanning booth at our apartment building, but I’ve kind of stayed clear of that a little bit. I’m not sure if guys are writing aliases down and some of our guys are trying to get in there under wraps but I’m pretty sure everyone is staying clear. If I come back with the same white, pasty look I’ll be fine because hopefully that means we’ve been in the rink all weekend. That’s 100 percent OK with me.