Akira Schmid grew up in a mountainous paradise but is thriving in one of the flattest parts of America.
The 20-year-old Sioux City Musketeers goaltender laughed at the contradiction.
"But you can't really go anywhere in Switzerland without seeing mountains. (the Alps) are everywhere," he said in flawless English.
Schmid grew up near Bern, in Langnau, and speaks four languages: his native tongue, English, German and some French. He was selected by the Devils in the fifth round (136th overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft. Beyond being 6'5" and having the wingspan of a jumbo jet, it's become clear in other ways it was a wise selection. He has been awarded United States Hockey League goaltender of the week three times this season, including twice in the past month. He's currently first or second in all the key goaltending statistical categories, with a 2.24 GAA and .912 SV%.
"He's been an absolute stud for our team all year," said fellow Devils prospect Ethan Edwards, a Musketeers defenseman, via text.
"But he's been on a whole other level during the back-end of the (schedule) and in our playoff push. He steals us more than a couple games and is one of the key reasons why we have a chance to make the playoffs. If we do make the playoffs, I think we can do some damage with him in between the pipes.
"He's a great guy, someone (being older than me) that I look up to and go to…about the Devils organization."
A year after a hip problem compromised his 19-year-old season, Schmid had surgery and looks every bit a new man between the pipes. Until a loss last weekend to Lincoln, the Musketeers had won six consecutive games, most low scoring victories where the Musketeers rode Schmid's goaltending. He had a 1.66 GAA and .937 SV% during that span.
"I had been in New Jersey for treatment but was still injured still when I went to the World Junior," he explained of his 2019-20, "I just decided to have surgery (in April) and get it over with."
The Musketeers are grinding away trying to squeeze into the USHL playoffs with six games left in the schedule. With the pandemic postponing and/or cancelling games, post-season berths will be decided on points percentage; the Musketeers likely need to win all their remaining games.
Schmid arrival in America's heartland came first with the Omaha Lancers before a trade to the Musketeers last season. His global hockey odyssey started not long after the Devils selected him. He reported to the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League, after that club took him in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
In a puzzling move that left more than a few hockey people shaking their heads - not least of which Devils brass - the Hurricanes waived Schmid after a single game. Sure, he played poorly that game but it was a single contest in a vastly new situation for a then-18-year-old playing far from home. Besides, teams don't typically use a valuable import selection only to essentially deprive that player of a chance to play.
Schmid picked himself up, landed briefly in Corpus Christi of the North American Hockey League, before eventually stepping up a notch on the junior hockey ladder by moving to Omaha. Soon after, he backstopped the Swiss to close 3-2 loss against Canada at the 2019 World Junior in Vancouver. Schmid made 29 saves in front of a packed house, an early indicator that the Devils had a keeper.
"If I want to play in the NHL some day, that's the (type of game) and crowd, 18,000 fans, I'm going to be in front of," he remembers.
Once the dust settles, Schmid will turn his focus to trying to earn a contract with the Devils, though he understands that may require another season of playing well. Whatever the case, he turns 21 next month and will have outgrown junior hockey and will turn pro, be it in Europe, or in the Devils system.
Schmid's presence in the Devils prospects stable adds more Swiss flavor beyond team captain Nico Hischier. Binghamton Devils goaltender Gilles Senn is also from Switzerland. Schimd and Senn were drafted a year apart but Senn is four years older.
In addition to Hischier - his drafting No. 1 overall in 2017 was a seminal moment in the country's hockey development - Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators has a huge following back home.
"It's about 50-50 between the Devils and Predators," says Schmid of Swiss NHL loyalties.
Edwards' presence in Sioux City now means the USHL club is the lone amateur club with multiple Devils prospects playing for it with former Providence forward Tyce Thompson having turned pro, leaving Patrick Moynihan alone on the Friars roster.
With his birds-eye view, Schmid thinks the Devils have a good one in Edwards.
"He's got great skills, with the puck and his skating," said Schmid of the Musketeers defenseman, "but he's also been great defensively. I don't think he's been on for a goal against during our winning streak."