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From 1 to 1,000

by Brian Smith | / Philadelphia Flyers

The first building most people see when driving into Strasbourg, Saskatchewan is the town rink.  It’s on the right side, a curved-roof structure along Highway 20 coming in from the south – there really aren’t many reasons you’d be coming from the north – right next to the William Derby School, which serves as the educational home for the youth of the 800-person population for all grades, K through 12.  Known officially as the Strasbourg Community Recreation Centre, it might also be the tallest building in a town mostly made up of single-story ranch-style homes, the kind of place where a stair-tread salesman would have a rough time.

It was in that little corner of Strasbourg that things all started for Nick Schultz.  The youngest of three hockey-loving boys in a hockey-loving community, Schultz grew up playing with his brothers and receiving coaching from his father and uncle, and ended up being pretty good at it.  On Wednesday, Schultz is slated to become the latest NHL player to hit 1,000 games when the Flyers host the Boston Bruins. 

“It was small-town Saskatchewan,” Schultz said of his hometown.  “Pretty much everybody there played hockey in the wintertime.  I grew up with two older brothers, and we were either at the rink or at the outdoor rink in town.  You get about nine months of cold.  It was fun. You kind of knew everybody in the town.  It was a great place to grow up.” 

Getting to the NHL takes a whole lot of hard work and a fair amount of luck, and Schultz did have a bit of an “in” as a kid.  When his late father Robert wasn’t working the family grain farm 15 miles outside of town, he often was coaching the boys or was otherwise at the Recreation Centre.  He drove the Zamboni at that local rink, which meant the Schultz boys – Terrance, Kris and Nick – could go skate just about whenever they wanted.  And if they couldn’t go there, they had other options.

“We’d head there right after school if there was practice or public skating,” Schultz said.  “They used to flood our old schoolyard and make a big rink there, and there was lights there and stuff so we could go and spend hours there with our buddies and play there.”

With all those hours of ice time, Schultz blossomed.  When he was 15, he left home to play Midget AAA hockey in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, a relatively bustling metropolis of 15,000 people nearly due east of Strasbourg.  From there, Schultz headed to the major junior world with Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League.  He caught the eye of Hockey Canada, playing in two World Junior Championships, and crept onto the radar for the 2000 NHL Draft.  And he met Jessica Dibb, who eventually became his wife. 

That was a long June for Doug Risebrough, who’s currently a pro scout for the New York Rangers but at the time was the general manager for the expansion Minnesota Wild.  The draft was in Calgary, and he’d spent the day before the draft in a Calgary hotel suite on a conference call building his team from scratch via an expansion draft, alternating picks with the Columbus Blue Jackets and then making some trades afterwards for good measure. 

By virtue of its expansion team status, Minnesota picked third in the first and second rounds.  The first pick in team history was Marian Gaborik.  The second was Schultz, taken 33rd overall with the third pick of the second round.

“We thought he would need some time, and we were going to be patient,” Risebrough said.  “It was an expansion team and we thought this is all about three, four, five years from now.  I think Nick came along faster than we thought.” 

“I had a lot of family and friends there,” Schultz recalled.  “It was a neat experience for everyone to be there and be part of it, and get picked.  As far as your dream of making it, getting drafted was a big part of it, and the rest was up to you after that.”

Schultz returned to Prince Albert for one more season, but in 2001, he made the Wild roster out of training camp.  He was still living in a hotel room when he made his NHL debut on October 14, 2001 at home against the Edmonton Oilers, one of his favorite teams as a child, with Jessica in town for the occasion.   

“I have a picture of me with my wife before I went to the game,” Schultz said.  “Other than that I don’t remember a ton.  It definitely goes fast.”

Schultz played 16:36 in that game, and didn’t register anything else that would show up in the boxscore – a relatively quiet beginning.  But in a way, it’s fitting for the way Schultz’s career ended up progressing.  He’s a true defensive defenseman, and defensive defensemen don’t get noticed by most hockey fans.  In these 999 career games, Schultz has 29 goals.  But goal scoring is not why he’s reaching this milestone.  

“He’s great defensively,” said fellow Flyers defenseman Mark Streit.  “He does all those little things that when people watch a hockey game, they don’t really realize it.  He goes under the radar.  As teammates, we really appreciate the small things – making a little play, taking a hit, blocking a ton of shots.”

Risebrough and the Wild needed a player like that at the beginning of their history, and he says Schultz took full advantage of the opportunity. 

“I think in a lot of ways, Nick’s story was the Wild’s story,” Risebrough said.  “Players were given an opportunity, he was given an opportunity, and it just blossomed.  With Nick, it’s probably his durability.  He just could play a lot of minutes.  He was consistently playing a lot.  As an expansion team you were always trying to defend more than score because you just didn’t have the scorers.  So he was constantly playing against the top players.  Some people do that with anxiety, but they get through it.  Nick did it with a passion.  He seemed to thrive on the environment where young guys are given a lot of responsibility.  He always had that half-smile on his face.”

Indeed, Schultz credits the success he’s had in playing this long to the foundation he obtained early in his career.

“It was just something where it was an expansion team,” he said.  “I was fortunate to play at the age I did just because they didn’t have a stockpile of draft picks and a couple years of kids.  I had a chance to learn under some good coaches in Jacques Lemaire and Mike Ramsey and Mario Tremblay who helped me learn at a young age how to be a pro.”

“Jacques was a great coach for him,” Risebrough said.  “I remember thinking if this is going to be a good thing for a kid like this to try to play in the NHL, but I had a real confidence in Nick because he was such a mature kid.  He was real balanced and had a real passion for the game.  And with Jacques, he knew how to let him have some success, bring him along, and put him in situations he knew he was going to be successful in.  He just blossomed into being a great, durable player.”

It didn’t take long for the Wild to find some success.  After two growing-pain, 20-win seasons, the Wild won 42 games in 2002-03 and not only made the playoffs for the first time, but made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.  On the way, they dispatched the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks in a pair of seven-game series, the first of which was won in a Game 7 overtime.  It was one of the highlights of Schultz’s 10 years in the organization. 

“We were kind of an underdog team,” Schultz said.  “It was a neat experience just to have that success at a young age and learn a lot, and do it on a new team.”

In the eyes of Risebrough, it was the point where Schultz arrived in the NHL for good. 

“We’d played back to back seven games series, and we won them both,” Risebrough said.  “Now we’re in the Conference Finals.  Nick is in the top four defensemen, and he’s only 22 years old.  I would probably say the series that pushed us over the top was beating the Avalanche after they were two years removed from the Stanley Cup.  They had Forsberg, they had Sakic.  We had to defend.  We ultimately won Game 7 in overtime.  If you’re playing against players like that when you’re 22 years old, I’m sure he would say that’s the moment when he started to realize I can do this.  He’s done it for a long time.”

The next seven years after that series held a lot for Schultz, both personally and professionally.  He and Jessica were married, and all three of their children were born in Minnesota.  He went through the death of his father and an emergency appendectomy.  In 2008, he signed a six-year contract extension that set his family up for life.  He became the Wild’s all-time leader in games played.  The 743rd game came on February 26, 2012 in a 4-3 win over San Jose.  It was a red-letter day because Schultz had scored one of those 29 goals, the first time that had happened in over a year.  His teammates had needled him appropriately.

The next day, Schultz was traded to Edmonton.  February 27 was the 2012 trade deadline, and his name had come up among the names that come up prior to deadline day.  But it was still a surprise. 

“I wasn’t really expecting it,” he said.  “It was a big shock, family at the time and just obviously very comfortable there being there for 10 years.  It was a shock.  But Edmonton was the team I grew up cheering for and it was close to home, so that part worked out.  To be there and play there, it was fun.  We enjoyed it.  The team didn’t do that great, but I still enjoyed playing there, being close to family and friends.”

The following year’s deadline had him on the move again, this time to Columbus.  After the season, Schultz was a free agent in a world where big statistics and impressive results attract the most attention.  In a free-agency car lot full of Porsches and Corvettes, Schultz was a Toyota Camry.

“If you get where you’re on a team and you’re not doing too well, you get kind of lost in the mix I think,” Schultz said.  “You see guys on teams that have success, teams want those guys.  You get a couple years where things don’t go so well, it’s hard.  You’ve got to get back in the mix and prove that you can still play.”

But it all came back to dependability, just like how most people know someone driving a Camry with a bunch of miles on it that isn’t turning heads in the parking lot, but it gets to work and back every single day without fail.  Schultz still had plenty of hockey left in him.  The Flyers were looking for help on defense, and they needed someone who could eat up some minutes and be reliable in their own zone.  But they didn’t have a lot of money available to get at any of the big names on the market.

“Ron had called and expressed interest in me,” Schultz said.  “They wanted to get an extra depth guy.  The team was close against the cap and gave me a chance to come and prove myself and play hard and compete.” 

Schultz signed a one-year deal.  Later that summer, the sudden news came that Kimmo Timonen had problems with blood clots.  Suddenly, his career was in jeopardy.  The Flyers quickly went out and signed Michael Del Zotto, who was also a free agent, to a similar contract.  

“We went through similar situations,” Del Zotto said.  “We were D-partners for quite a bit of it too, which I think helped.  We had a bit of a fire under us to prove ourselves.  Sitting beside him, his veteran presence and leadership, it certainly helped me a lot from a defense point of view.”

Schultz showed the Flyers enough in the first half of the season to warrant a contract extension, which he signed in February of 2015 and lasts through next season. 

“I was just fortunate some guys had some injuries and I was able to get into the lineup early and play,” Schultz said.  “So it worked out and I got a chance to sign for a couple more years, extend my career and keep playing.  You go from a summer where it’s not looking so great and then you get an opportunity to go somewhere and play.  It’s worked out pretty good.”

And it’s enabled Schultz to reach this milestone, which is something his teammates are very happy to see him do.

“It’s tough to even understand how many games that is, knowing how tough the league is, especially as a defenseman,” Del Zotto said.  “Especially the way he plays – those hard minutes, blocking shots, being physical.  It’s a tremendous task.  Just being able to watch him day in and day out do the things that it takes to be successful in this league… he’s a huge part of this team.

“I’ve had the privilege of sitting next to him [in the locker room] for a year and a half now.  You see what he brings on the ice – his leadership, work ethic and the intangibles.  Not everyone sees what he brings to the locker room.  He’s a true professional.    It couldn’t happen to a better guy.  We’re really, really happy for him.”

On the other side of Schultz is one of the pieces of the Flyers’ defensive future, Brandon Manning.  Schultz’s mentorship on Manning and the other Flyers’ young defensemen is just an added benefit to his presence.    

“First and foremost, he’s just a good teammate,” Manning said.  “He shows up to work every day.  You can tell he’s a good family man, but when he comes to the rink he enjoys being around the guys.  You can see the young guy in him, and he likes being around the boys.  He’s just been a good influence on all the defensemen.  He brings a good attitude and he’s always positive.  He leads by example – he’s not a guy who talks in the dressing room a lot, but when he has something to say, you listen.  Obviously there’s a lot of respect there.”

As Schultz hits the 1000-game milestone, there will be a lot of others outside the Flyers’ locker room who undoubtedly will send a text, make a call, or send some other note of congratulations to a guy they’re proud to say they called a teammate or otherwise had on their side.  It’ll likely be everyone from his mother Carol, who’s still in Strasbourg – she’s a former two-term mayor of the town – to Risebrough, who’s very happy with how things worked out. 

“If I could go back and say of those first three years of the Wild and someone said pick the guy who’s going to play 1000 games in this league, I’d probably have to pick Nick,” Risebrough said.  “He’s just consistent, a great teammate.  That’s how you would describe his approach in life too.  He comes from a great family, he’s grounded, he’s a great teammate and he has a great family now personally.  You know what you’re going to get with him.  In today’s era when players want more, Nick just wanted to have team success, and from his team’s success, he played more.  As he gets later in his career, he’s a great model for young players.  He’s not going to tell you what to do.  He’s going to do it, and you just follow.”

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