BEIJING – The Tampa Bay Lightning may be the current kings of the NHL, but Florida is not exactly known as a winter sports Mecca.
That hasn’t stopped Nathan Smith from representing the Sunshine State at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
Smith is only the second Florida native to represent the U.S. in Olympic hockey, joining Brandon Maxwell, who was a backup goaltender with the 2018 U.S. squad.
Born and raised in the Tampa suburb of Hudson, Smith grew up playing travel hockey with the Tampa Scorpions. He also represented Mitchell High School at the 2017 USA Hockey High School National Championships. Those experiences served as a launching pad that has taken him farther than he could ever imagine.
“Just like here, that Nationals team was a special group ,” said Smith, who had eight goals in the tournament, including all four in a 7-4 semifinal loss to the eventual national champs from Frisco, Texas.
Smith’s play at high school nationals caught the eye of a member of USA Hockey’s player development staff who made a few well-placed calls to say that there was a player at the recent high school nationals who might be someone to take a flyer on.
“Playing high school hockey and travel hockey was a good building block for me,” Smith said. “It prepared me for junior hockey and helped me progress to where I am now.”
After a brief spin with the Aberdeen Wings in the NAHL, Smith moved on to the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. His stint in the USHL not only provided the next step in his development, it also gave him his first taste of international competition as a member of the U.S. team that skated at the 2017 World Junior A Challenge.
It’s also where he struck up a friendship with Minnesota State Mankato associate head coach Todd Knott, who invited the Florida native and his family to tour the campus in southern Minnesota.
“Being able to see a young man develop from his freshman year to where he is today and to take advantage of the opportunities the way that he has is special,” said Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings, who gets to keep an eye on his prized player as an assistant coach with the U.S. team.
One of those opportunities came at the 2021 Frozen Four, where Smith led the Mavericks’ push toward a national title. While they came up a game short of their goal, it wasn’t for lack of effort as Smith was named to the all-tournament team.
With the prospect of a pro career staring him in the face, the third round pick of the Winnipeg Jets had to make a decision, sign an NHL contract or return to Mankato to round out his game and help the Mavericks take care of some unfinished business.
“His game has just really developed and evolved over the last couple of years,” Hastings said. “One reason he came back, when he had an opportunity to sign [an NHL contract], was because he wanted to round out his game. He’s done that this season and has become more of a 200-foot player for us.”
It looks like a good decision so far. At the time of his departure to join his U.S. Olympic teammates, Smith was leading the nation in scoring as the Mavericks are poised to make another run at the CCHA conference crown and the postseason.
The scoring touch he has demonstrated on the college ice appears to have cleared Chinese customs as he has contributed to the offensive attack for the surprising Americans. Smith scored his first goal of the tournament in a 3-1 win over Germany to clinch the top spot in Group A and a berth in the quarterfinals where they will take on Slovakia on Wednesday.
One of 15 collegians on the team, Smith is enjoying the Olympic experience as the team continues to bond on the ice and away from the rink.
“So far it’s been amazing. We have a good group of guys and we’ve got something good going right now,” Smith said after he and his teammates attended the Big Air freestyle snowboarding competition on a rare off day.
“We’re just trying to do everything as a group to kind of bond and gel in the short time that we have. And so far, I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
Hastings is not surprised to see one of his star players continue to excel at the next level of competitive hockey.
“One thing that’s great about Nathan is if you go back to last year he played some of his best hockey at the Frozen Four,” Hastings said. “Those are some pretty bright lights there. It’s not like the Olympics, but he just goes out and plays his game.”
Like his coach, Smith is focused on the task at hand while still keeping an eye on how his Mavericks teammates are doing in his absence. They’re doing the same as they cheer on their friend and teammate as he continues to do what he does best on the biggest stage in hockey.
“They’re super supportive of me and telling me congrats and stuff like that after each game,” Smith said. “I know they’re all watching, so it’s nice to have that kind of support.”