WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. (WFLA) – He has temporarily traded in his hockey stick for a pair of crutches, but it seems that nothing will stop Nathan Smith from chasing his NHL dream.
The graduate of Mitchell High School in New Port Richey is gearing up for the collegiate season at Minnesota State-Mankato and there is an NHL team keeping a close eye on his progress.
Smith was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the third round of last month’s NHL Draft, the first Tampa Bay area born player to achieve that status. The road to the top league is a long one but Smith has already made Tampa Bay area hockey history.
As he recovers from an ankle sprain, Smith paid a visit to the World V-Red Prospects Camp at the Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel. The camp athletes, elite players themselves at the local level, cheer their new hero, an example of what they can attain.
“Good on Nathan. He was outstanding at this camp,” said Roger Shannon, of the UNB coaching staff. “We all talked about his ability and said, ‘this kid’s a player.'”
Last year, Smith, put himself on the NHL map starring for the Cedar Rapids Roughriders, a Tier I junior ice hockey team playing in the United States Hockey League. The Winnipeg Jets were in contact with him and the Smith family had a hunch they could hear his name called by the Jets in June’s NHL Draft, in Dallas.
“It was definitely an exciting moment for me. I wasn’t expecting to be that high,” Smith said. “We were just watching on TV. Kind of a casual moment. Once I saw my name, everybody just kind of jumped up. It was pretty exciting.”
Unlike many professional hockey players, Smith did not lace up skates and hit the ice early in childhood. Instead, he learned how to skate on wheels, mastering street hockey. He was a club team player for the Tampa Scorpions, a state and national champion representing Mitchell. There is obvious talent but also a work ethic beyond normal.
There is no guarantee that he will make it to the NHL.
Neither the odds, nor the doubters matter at the V-Red camp. Smith is introduced to a loud applause.
Young Tampa Bay area players try to get a glimpse of perhaps the first local player that could make it to the big time.
“Nathan is the first kid from this area drafted to the National Hockey League,” Shannon said. “It’s just about opportunities. It’s about getting ice. It’s about getting a chance. It doesn’t matter where you’re born.”
“I’m glad I can be that person just to inspire little kids and anybody who’s really getting into the sport,” Smith said. “Anything is possible.”