Cole Smith, who was cut by a USHL team and had one college offer, now has an NHL contract

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(From left) UND hockey players Dixon Bowen, Cole Smith and Colton Poolman share a laugh during the senior spotlight video following the team's 2-1 overtime win against Western Michigan on Saturday, February 29, 2020 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

UND coach Brad Berry did not go to Steinbach, Man., to scout Cole Smith.

He and associate head coach Dane Jackson made the trip to watch a goaltender play in a Manitoba Junior Hockey League game. Smith just happened to be playing in that game, too.

"Obviously, you look at the game program, and you see there's a 6-foot-4 player from Brainerd," Berry said. "We didn't have a lot of past history with him. But watching that game, every time he was on the ice, he made an impact. He had a goal and a couple of assists. So, we went back to watch him again. Every time we went to watch, we came away thinking, 'We've got to get this guy.'"

That's how Smith ended up at UND.

It was not the traditional way of being recruited to college hockey, but nothing about Smith's path has been traditional.


After graduating high school in Brainerd, Minn., Smith got cut from his United States Hockey League tryout. He landed in Steinbach, because the team's head coach was the best man in his uncle's wedding. He had just one college offer -- a 20 percent scholarship to UND.

Overlooked at nearly every level, Smith is now leaving UND with an NHL contract in hand.

The 6-foot-4, 197-pound forward, who just completed his senior season, signed a one-year deal with the Nashville Predators with a base salary of $700,000 if he's in the NHL and a signing bonus of $92,500. The deal will begin in the fall.

For Smith, it's another step on his unconventional journey.

"I've always created my own path," Smith said. "Everyone has to have their own path. I did it on the road less traveled. It is very satisfying. I always kind of see my game as trying to prove people wrong and prove myself right, basically."

Finding a home

Smith played three years of varsity hockey for Brainerd under coach Jim Archibald, a UND legend and national champion who briefly played for the Minnesota North Stars.

He was a solid player for Brainerd, but not enough to gain any college interest. After his senior season, he was picked in the 10th round of the USHL Entry Draft by the Sioux Falls Stampede. He tried out for the team, but got cut. The Stampede went on to win the Clark Cup that season.

Smith weighed options between the North American Hockey League and the MJHL, but a family connection won out. Steinbach Pistons coach Paul Dyck was a former pro teammate of Smith's uncle, Sandy.


"We talked with him quite a bit and had faith in him," Smith said. "That's how I ended up there."

During his first season in the MJHL, Smith had his first contact with a college program -- a very brief introduction by a Bemidji State coach.

It was Smith's second season in Steinbach when he caught UND's eye.

Berry, Jackson and then-assistant Matt Shaw all went up to watch him play. UND brought Smith to campus on a visit during the final weekend of the regular season in 2015-16 -- the year UND won the national championship. Smith committed before leaving campus.

The only other interest he had was from Bemidji State and Michigan, though neither offered.

"There were a few teams kicking the tires on him, but they didn't see him enough," Berry said. "We got up there to see him a few times and had a bigger body of work on him and felt comfortable moving forward."

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UND forward Cole Smith beats Denver's Emilio Pettersen (20) in a foot race to the puck in a game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald


A 'nightmare' for opponents

Smith knew he was joining a program where getting into the lineup was difficult. His rookie class included the No. 10 overall pick in the NHL Draft, Tyson Jost.

"Coming to North Dakota, nothing was guaranteed," Smith said. "Coming out of the MJHL, I knew I had to improve on a lot of aspects. The coaches told me that you earn what you get here."

That's what Smith did.

He scored a goal in his first-career game in October. Although he was in-and-out of the lineup through January, Smith became a regular by the end and suited up in UND's final 12 games that season, including all five playoff contests.

Smith gradually increased his point total each season: 7 to 10 to 16 to 18. His skillset improved to the point where he had a double-digit goal total as a senior (11) and earned a spot on the second power-play unit of a team that was 26-5-4 and No. 1 in the Pairwise Rankings when the season came to an abrupt end due to the coronavirus outbreak.

But point totals tell very little of his story.

Smith became one of UND's most indispensable players because of his dominant puck possession and the way he could take opponents' top players out of the game. Berry began throwing Smith and his line with Gavin Hain and Mark Senden against every opponent's top line. They routinely shut them down, because they always had the puck in the offensive zone.

Western Michigan coach Andy Murray told a group of UND fans this season that, for all the high-end players at UND, it was Smith who gave him nightmares.


"He's a big, powerful body," Berry said. "He's athletic. You can tell by the Iron Man competitions -- him and Colton Poolman went back-and-forth (as winners) -- that he had athleticism. He really transformed over four years here. His skillset refined itself. He ended up scoring some huge goals for us. He improved his hands, his finishing, his passing. He was a threat in the offensive zone. Toward the end of his career, we had him on the power play. He invested in himself to get to where he wanted to go."

Even so, pro hockey wasn't a thought until later in his career.

Smith didn't even have a family advisor, which is commonplace among D-I players, until a month into his senior season.

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UND captain Colton Poolman (6) and alternate captain Cole Smith (26) carry the Penrose Cup off the ice on Senior Night. Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Signing an NHL deal

UND had numerous high-profile NHL free agents on its roster this season, including Hobey Baker Award finalist Jordan Kawaguchi, captain Colton Poolman and defenseman Matt Kiersted.

As scouts flocked to watch Fighting Hawks games, they also noticed No. 26.

"When NHL teams came to watch, they couldn't help but see him on the ice," Berry said. "We had NHL teams saying, 'Give me the story about this kid. What's this kid all about?' A lot of times in college hockey, you don't get the big-bodied players. So when you do have a guy with his capabilities, size and skillset, it becomes attractive to pro hockey teams. He's a big body who can skate. He checks a lot of boxes."


Smith had multiple NHL offers, but he narrowed in on Nashville.

"I thought Nashville would be a good fit for me, trying to get my foot in the door," Smith said.

Smith signed his deal with his parents sitting next to him.

"It was pretty surreal," he said. "It's something I've been working toward for 20 years now. It's a dream I always had as a kid. To see it come to fruition is pretty special."

Smith said the ability to have extra ice time in Ralph Engelstad Arena played a big role in his development. Going back to his freshman year, he would skate with classmates Jost, Poolman, Zach Yon and Andrew Peski between classes.

"My freshman year, we got to skate with some of the players from the 2016 championship team," Smith said. "That made me realize where I needed to get my game to. I was able to get ice time and work on all of those things. That's something I'm going to take from here."

There are plenty of other things Smith plans to take from Grand Forks as he moves forward.

"I'll take all the friendships I created here," he said. "The culture and the will to win at North Dakota is something I'll always cherish, along with how much they really cared about us."


UND's Cole Smith watches Jacob Bernard-Docker's shot beat St. Cloud State goalie David Hrenak in an NCHC game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at
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