Hockey is a funny game abound with funny stories.
Sometimes those stories are “ha-ha” funny. Sometimes those stories are weirdly funny. Sometimes they’re both.
The story of Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Nate Schmidt is a bit of both, especially in the context of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The 26-year-old from St. Cloud has taken a curious path to the Golden Knights. The road ran through Vegas’ opponents for the Cup and features a major uptick in fortunes.
Said uptick in fortunes has Schmidt with 36 points in 76 games this regular season. Previously, he had just 41 points in his previous 200 NHL games – all with the Washington Capitals.
Schmidt spent his collegiate hockey years with the Minnesota Golden Gophers and was picked for the All-WHCA First Team in 2012-2013, but he wasn’t to a big league club. Instead, the Capitals picked him up in April of 2013 and then-general manager George McPhee had designs on big-time success for the blueliner.
Schmidt reported for duty in Hershey and had three points in his first eight games.
The Capitals called him up and Schmidt debuted in October of 2013 against Colorado. By December of 2013, he was reassigned to the Bears.
Schmidt spent parts of four seasons in Washington and he bounced around a fair bit, never really reaching that top-four distinction McPhee had in mind. The irony was that the general manager with so much faith in the defenceman was ejected from the nation’s capital by Ted Leonsis just a year after the signing.
McPhee went on to Long Island. Schmidt went on to hang around the lower pairings of the club.
But hockey is a funny business, both “ha-ha” funny and weirdly funny. And when the Vegas Golden Knights entered the league as a Bill Foley’s baby and announced McPhee as their general manager, the pieces were on the board for another one of those stories.
The short version: the Caps left Schmidt exposed for the expansion draft and Vegas came calling, selecting the defenceman and transforming him from a lower echelon player into one of the best skaters on the club. He logs almost 25 minutes of ice time a game in the playoffs and will doubtlessly revel in the thrill of facing his former team for the ultimate prize.
The (slightly) longer version is more interesting.
McPhee and the Golden Knights were intent on picking Schmidt in the expansion draft, what with the general manager wanting to pick up where he left off in Washington and all. This was made clear to McPhee’s bantam buddy, Washington general manager Brian MacLellan, and a 44-year friendship was put in the mix.
The tale goes that MacLellan called up McPhee and asked if there was a chance for something else to be, you know, worked out. He wanted to know if Vegas would, you know, take someone else.
“I said, ‘I don’t [think] there’s (anything you can do),’” McPhee said about the potential for wheeling and/or dealing. “’I don’t see anything, but we’ll try to come up with something to give you a chance to say no.’ So, we would make a proposal that I didn’t think would work, and it didn’t work.”
Vegas aimed for the moon and landed in the stars. They wanted something ginormous for the largess of not taking Schmidt.
But MacLellan, McPhee’s old Bowling Green teammate, didn’t budge. “It was businesslike,” MacLellan said.
Schmidt was subsequently selected and the rest may be Stanley Cup history.
“Because our guys liked Schmidt, we overreached on the ask,” recounted McPhee. “That’s the way it went.”
People may be cynical about life and sports and “stupid analysis” and everything in between, but sometimes it pays to just sit back and watch the ineffable magic.
The Nate Schmidt story reminds us of that, of how outcomes are volatile and improbable, of how hockey can be really kind of fun.
And even funny.
“This is just another chapter in this crazy book that is our season,” McPhee said. “We [MacLellan and I] texted a little bit. We talked yesterday. It’s gone this way and it’s hard to believe, but we’ll enjoy it. It beats some of the jobs we had as kids.”