Cole Smith admitted he wasn't the most skilled hockey player when he arrived on campus at the University of North Dakota in the fall of 2016. So, he put in the work, calling his coaches for extra, 30-minute, on-ice sessions whenever he could find the time.
Four years later, he's about to start playing hockey for a living.
Smith inked a one-year, two-way deal for the 2020-21 campaign with the Predators on Thursday, a bright spot in his senior season that came to an abrupt end due to the threat of the coronavirus. However, the Brainerd, Minnesota, native and self-confessed country-music lover couldn't be happier to sign a contract with Nashville to begin his career.
"It feels incredible, really," Smith said via conference call on Thursday shortly after the deal was announced. "It hasn't completely hit me yet, but I'm extremely excited. It's always been a lifelong dream to play professional hockey, and just to be able to sign that contract is awesome. I'm ready to get back to work and get [to Nashville soon]."
The 6-foot-3, 197-pound forward was named an alternate captain by his peers at the start of the season, and he responded with a career-high 11 goals and 18 points in 34 contests. Smith saw his goal and point totals increase in each of his four seasons, and he finished his career at North Dakota with 51 points (24g-27a) in 137 games.
Those numbers are evidence of his consistent improvement during his time spent with the Fighting Hawks, but there's more to it than the digits on the scoresheet.
"For me, as a player, I think I'm that power forward that brings a lot of energy," Smith said. "Good puck protection against the wall, hard, fast, physical, tough to play against; that's what my role here has been, to kind of be a shutdown guy, hard to play against."
The Predators noticed that as well, but they also heard of Smith's personality in talking with those at North Dakota who knew him best. It's part of what made Smith an attractive option once the collegiate season came to a close, and they were pleased to put pen to paper.
"He is a big, strong guy who has gotten better every year," Predators Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Personnel Jeff Kealty said of Smith. "If you talk to the people at North Dakota, they just rave about the character traits that he has - his competitiveness, his drive, his physicality, all those ingredients he adds to a team in a winning environment. We feel like he's going to be able to add all of that to our organization."
There was already a reason for the Preds to keep a keen eye in North Dakota - Smith's teammate, Grant Mismash, was drafted by Nashville back in 2017 - and Smith already has an idea what to expect thanks to Mismash, who just finished his junior season at UND.
"[Grant] told me he loved his time going [to Nashville] for a couple of development camps," Smith said. "He's a very good, skilled player, and I've got a great relationship with him. Also, [Preds forward] Rocco [Grimaldi], I got to hang out with him a little bit this summer. I actually had an internship at the gym [where Grimaldi works out in the offseason], and I was kind of picking his brain about how everything is as a professional. He's a really good guy, and I got to know him this summer as well."
That internship was part of Smith's role as an exercise science major, and he took being a student just as seriously as the athletic portion of his schooling. The son of two teachers, Smith earned a number of scholarly honors over the past four seasons, and it's clear his passion for academics translated onto the ice as well.
"I've always been instilled with the education aspect of things, and so I've always held those good grades up," Smith said. "[Being an] exercise science major, I absolutely love that, and I think if you love something, you dedicate a lot more to it."
Smith says his conversations with Predators management thus far have made it very clear to him the organization expects him to come in and prove himself - show them he can be that hard-working player Nashville brass has seen since he appeared on their radar.
And just because he's signed his first pro deal doesn't mean he's going to stop with those extra on-ice sessions. If anything, Smith's about to find time for a few more.
"[North Dakota] is so special, and it just develops players in such a way," Smith said. "Coming in here, I might not have been the most skilled guy to start my freshman year, but I've been able to work with this coaching staff, play with high-end players, and you just really learn to develop your game. And I think that's what I take most of my time here, just being able to develop my game in such a way… And I think [that extra ice time has] paid itself off in the last little bit."