TAMPA — Every year during draft season, players from the Tampa Bay area are selected in the NFL, MLB and even NBA drafts.
Sure enough, in the third round of Saturday's NHL draft, the Jets selected Nathan Smith, a forward who was born in New Port Richey and graduated last year from Mitchell High in western Pasco County. He is believed to be the first NHL draft pick who was born in the Tampa Bay area and graduated from a local high school.
"It's awesome. I hope other people can see that it's actually possible and they can do the same thing if they put their mind to it and just work," said Smith, 19, who watched the draft with friends in Tampa on Saturday afternoon. "I had good coaches and teammates growing up to work with, and my family was always there to support me and push me along the way. I had a good support system. Put your mind to it and anything is possible."
Smith, 6 feet and 180 pounds, started playing roller hockey at age 6 and took up ice hockey at 11, playing with the Tampa Scorpions. He went to Fivay High while living in Hudson for two years, playing basketball there, then transferred to Mitchell, which has hockey as a club sport, for his final two years of high school.
Playing in the Lightning High School Hockey League, he was a prolific scorer, getting 41 goals and 45 assists in 15 games — just short of averaging a hat trick — as a high school junior, helping Mitchell win a USA Hockey national championship in Virginia.
Ralph Sowder, who has coached Smith since his roller hockey days and with Mitchell and the Scorpions, said he was always motivated on the ice and took time to help younger players learn the sport alongside him.
"His compete level is off the charts," Sowder said. "He has a skill set on top of that and checks off so many boxes. It's hard to ignore it. He's earned it. I've never been around a player that puts the time in that he has."
After graduating from Mitchell, Smith spent last season playing for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League, the top U.S.-based junior league, thriving in another area not necessarily known for its hockey.
"I actually loved it there," said Smith, talking between flights on his way to Winnipeg for a week-long rookie development camp this week. "It's in the middle of nowhere, but it's better than what people were saying it was going to be. I like the team. I like playing there. The rink was nice. I like the coach. It was a good experience."
Winnipeg has his draft rights for two years. Smith will play in Cedar Rapids again next season and plans to play college hockey in 2019-20 at Minnesota State.
He lists playmaking and vision as his strengths and hopes to continue playing center as he progresses in the sport.
NHL players are rarely born and raised in Florida. Hockey-reference.com lists 10 players who were born in Florida and have played in NHL games.
When Coral Springs' Andrew Yogan was drafted in 2010 by the Rangers, he was touted as the first player born and raised in Florida to be drafted by an NHL team. Current Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, 25, was born in Pembroke Pines and spent two years at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland before moving to Connecticut. Current Golden Knights center Ryan Carpenter, 27, was born in Orlando and graduated from Orlando's Timber Creek High.
Dallas Eakins, who played 120 games in the NHL as a defenseman from 1993-2002, was born in Dade City but moved to Canada when he was 7. This year's No. 7 overall pick by the Canucks, Quinn Hughes, was born in Orlando but moved to Toronto when he was young, and Kings second-round pick Akil Thomas is listed as being born in Brandon, though he grew up in several states. Panthers third-round pick Logan Hutsko was born in Tampa but went to high school in Michigan and plays at Boston College.
Smith hopes to come back to Tampa someday in the NHL and wants his success to remind people that hockey players can develop their game anywhere. He said he didn't talk to the Lightning during the draft process but was a regular at Tampa Bay home games and appreciates what the team has done to help the sport locally.
"It's definitely a cool thing," he said of his Florida roots. "It's not like Minnesota, where high school hockey is a big thing. But it's definitely growing down here in Florida, which is awesome. The Lightning promote the sport really well. Me, being from Florida, playing my entire youth career here, and where I'm at now is big stuff."