At a young age, Nick Schmaltz knew he wanted to play college hockey. The Madison, Wis. native grew up idolizing players at the University of Wisconsin, watching wide-eyed every Friday and Saturday night at the Kohl Center.
Schmaltz learned at a young age that a good way to make his college hockey dreams come true was through eventually playing junior hockey.
“You play against older guys, stronger guys, and you push yourself a lot harder in junior hockey,” said Schmaltz, 22, now a forward with the Chicago Blackhawks. “There are a lot of guys you can learn from, guys who know more than you to show you the ropes and carve that path.”
After three years with the United States Hockey League’s Green Bay Gamblers, which included being named to the USHL All-Rookie Team in 2012-13 and the USHL All-Star Game in 2013-14, Schmaltz’s college hockey dreams came true.
Fresh off a championship at the World Junior A Challenge in which he set a tournament points record (12; 4G, 8A), the Badger fan turned to the west and spent two years at the University of North Dakota, including one season with his older brother, Jordan. There, he helped North Dakota capture the 2016 national championship banner while earning NCHC Honorable Mention accolades.
Nick (left) and his brother, Jordan (right)
With an NCAA championship under his belt, Schmaltz turned his attention toward the professional ranks.
Drafted with the No. 20 pick overall by the Blackhawks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, he made his professional debut on Oct. 12, 2016, and went on to split his rookie campaign between the NHL and Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. He then secured a full-time roster spot this past season, where he tied for second on the Blackhawks in scoring with 52 points (21G, 31A), but ultimately saw the Blackhawks fall short of reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs.
While hockey ended early for Schmaltz and the Blackhawks this year, he has plenty of prior playoff experience on his path to the pros. He shared those memories and more about his path to the NHL in our latest Q-and-A.
USA Hockey: So college hockey, that was the plan from the start?
Nick Schmaltz:Definitely college. I grew up in Madison and we had season tickets to the Badger games, so we’d go every weekend, Friday and Saturday. I just looked up to all those guys that played college hockey and it was something I wanted to do for sure.
USA Hockey: Did you know that junior hockey was an option to get there?
Schmaltz: Once I got older, probably around 12U or 14U, I kind of figured out what the USHL was. I didn’t really know about it until then, but that’s when I kind of put it together and figured out that it was the best route for me.
USA Hockey: How did junior hockey prepare you for UND?
Schmaltz:I think I matured as much on ice as off the ice. Just being away from my family and doing stuff on my own, managing my time and trying to learn how to take hockey to the next level. On the ice, I think I got stronger in all areas. Physically, I got stronger, and my two-way game definitely developed more and more as I played.
USA Hockey: You made the playoffs both seasons with Green Bay (2012-13 and 2013-14), and narrowly missed being a Clark Cup champion in 2012. What are the playoffs like in junior hockey and how does that help you prepare for playoffs in college and the NHL?
Schmaltz:It definitely helps. It’s the best-of-five series and it’s definitely intense. I had a lot of fun playing in the playoffs. It’s pretty special to play in the playoffs no matter what level you’re at. That experience you can use at the next level and the rest of your career. You learn how to play in big situations and big games. We weren’t able to win it all, but we had a good team, a lot of fun, and a great time there, so I had a blast in Green Bay even though we couldn’t win it all.
USA Hockey: But you did manage to win it all in North Dakota…
Schmaltz: That was one of the highlights of my time there. We had a heckuva team. If you look back at that roster we had, I don’t know how many guys are in the NHL now, but it’s a pretty good number. We kind of had a perfect season, I don’t really remember too many games where we lost. I think we (only) lost six or seven games all season and we were pretty deep. We had a lot of really great role players, skill players, and everyone we had bought in to what we were doing. We were knocking at the door there for awhile. We made it to three Frozen Fours in a row and lost two of them. To be able to bring it back to those fans, they’re so crazy about hockey, so it was a good celebration as well.
USA Hockey: How did college hockey prepare you for the NHL?
Schmaltz: It was the best years of my life there. The coaching staff, they’re there to develop you for the next level and they want to help you get there. They were great to me. I know a lot of guys have gone through college hockey and made that step [into the NHL] right away, so they’re doing something right. In college, they treat you like pros. Everything they do is kind of similar to this level where you go about treating everyone the same and it’s a business-like environment, so it really developed some really important skills there.
USA Hockey: Final words of advice? Why should players consider the junior hockey path, and college, to get to the pros?
Schmaltz:I think junior hockey helps with your development on the ice. There are a lot of great people in the league, a lot of great coaches and guys that will help you out off the ice as well. I think it’s just a great path. There are a lot of great players coming out of juniors, and young kids are going the college route, so it’s just a great stepping-stone for the college level. You get to live the junior lifestyle a little bit; it’s all hockey, go to school four hours a day and then you’re at the rink the rest of the day, hanging out with the guys, bonding, and working on your game and getting away from all the other distractions. It worked for me, and I wouldn’t have done it any differently.