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How Akira Schmid’s wild journey to America’s heartland has him shooting up the Devils’ prospect board

March 6th, 2019 by Corey Masisak

OMAHA,​ Neb. —​ The​ smoke machine​ filled​ the air inside​ Ralston​ Arena for several minutes​ before a disco ball was​​ wheeled out to center ice. The lights went down. A knight in full-body armor emerged, wielding a sword.

The Omaha Lancers put on quite the pregame show, and it was a tall, lanky goaltender from Switzerland who earned the loudest cheers from the home crowd on a frigid Friday night before taking his place in net.

Akira Schmid was 1,200 miles away from where he thought he’d be when the calendar turned to March. His first season after leaving home and moving to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to pursue his dream did not go the way he planned.

But, a little more than four months after being stranded in Western Canada for a month without a team, Schmid has found a home in America’s heartland. And the Devils may have found a late-round gem in the process.

“The transition coming over here is a tough one,” Devils assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “Failing in one place seemed to catapult him into another and he took advantage of the opportunity. He didn’t drop the ball. He pretty much took charge and the success has followed him, which is great to see.”

Schmid grew up playing in the SCL Tigers youth system, about 20 miles east of Bern, a city the Devils got to know well during a preseason trip in September.

New Jersey selected Schmid a few months prior to that in the fifth round of the 2018 NHL Draft. Five days later, the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League picked Schmid in the first round of the CHL import draft. A month later, Schmid agreed to a contract with Lethbridge and his development path appeared to be set.

He went to Lethbridge for a few days before coming to New Jersey for rookie camp. He played one of the three games in Buffalo at the rookie tournament and turned in a solid performance.

Everything was going smoothly, until it very suddenly was not.

“I don’t know (what happened),” Schmid said. “I went to (Devils) camp and came back and played right away and just didn’t play well. I talked about it with the GM there and he was like, ‘We know you need some time to get used to everything and we’ll give you that time.’ A couple days later I got waived. I didn’t expect that, but I can’t do anything about it.”

Schmid played one game for Lethbridge, allowing seven goals on 27 shots. A couple of days later, the Hurricanes waived him. The next day, he was a free agent.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I was disappointed in Lethbridge. Our whole organization was,” Fitzgerald said. “You bring a European kid over, a young 18-year-old and there is an adjustment. Camp didn’t go great for him there. He took some time to come with us, and we wanted to hang onto him as long as we could for obvious reasons — to have Rollie Melanson and Scott Clemmensen spend as much time as possible with him before he went back. I don’t think he got a chance to work out of a funk, and the leash was too short.”

Because of the CHL’s import rules, only WHL teams were eligible to claim Schmid. Given the timing — right at the start of the season — none of the other WHL clubs were looking for a goaltender nor had room for another import.

CHL teams are only allowed to dress two imports — players hailing from outside of North America who have not come here and established “local” status. There was actually a ban on European goaltenders from 2013 until it was lifted last year.

Lethbridge drafted Schmid in the first round and Belarusian defenseman Danila Palivko in the second round. The issue for Schmid ended up being Igor Merezhko, a defenseman from Ukraine whom Lethbridge had drafted in 2015 and played the previous three seasons for the Hurricanes.

“It came out of nowhere. (Akira) got drafted by Lethbridge and they said they had an opening for him,” Schmid’s agent, Alain Roy said. “A player that they had the year before (Merezhko) decided to not turn pro and come back to Lethbridge. You can only have two imports and that jammed Akira.”

Roy and the Devils immediately started looking for a landing spot. Because of the WHL’s rules, Schmid was not allowed to skate at the Lethbridge arena, so he worked out daily and spent most of his time away from the rink playing NBA2K and Fortnite.

“I can’t really do much about it,” Schmid said. “I was just trying to let them do their job and staying in shape and waiting. It was hard to wait, but it went by faster than you think. I just tried to stay calm.

“I was just kind of surprised and shocked. My agent and New Jersey were both like, ‘We’re going to find you a team. No worries. You’re going to have a good season.’ The people (in Lethbridge) were nice. My billets were awesome. They helped me a lot.”

Schmid spent almost a month in Lethbridge without playing, waiting for a chance to get his career back on track. Eventually, there was an opening, in the North American Hockey League with the Corpus Christi IceRays.

The NAHL is a Tier II junior league, a step below the CHL and the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in this country.

“I didn’t know there was hockey down there,” Schmid said. “I was like, ‘Hmm, OK?’ I googled it and the rink was really nice. It was a big rink. Warm city, of course. It was kind of a like a vacation, always nice weather. We had to wake up early every day, at like 6:30 to be at the rink at like 7. The fans were awesome. I didn’t see a lot of the city, but I saw the beach.”

Schmid’s time in Corpus Christi turned out to be more like a vacation than a prolonged detour.

The start to this season was a bit of a mess for the Lancers. Omaha had a strong team last season, but lost 14 players at the end of it.

Roster turnover is part of the deal in the USHL, but the upheaval this season has gone well beyond the norm for the Lancers and coach/general manger David Wilkie.

“We didn’t have a great draft, I think, and our play early was reflective of the fact that we had guys who weren’t good enough to play in the league, truthfully. Or at least able to perform consistently,” Wilkie said. “We tried to trade our way out of it and then we started stripping away things and going with younger guys. It’s crazy. We’ve actually traded our leading scoring four different times. Those four guys were leading the team at that time, and we actually got better each time. I don’t know if that’s necessarily textbook, but it worked out that way.

“I think we’re the hottest team in the league right now. We were 25 points out at one point of the last playoff spot. Now we’re (three) points out. We’re believing and pushing.”

The Lancers have used eight goalies this season — 10 if you count the two who were cut during training camp. Wilkie was interested in Schmid when he was stuck in Lethbridge, but he didn’t have a roster spot available.

Schmid went to Corpus Christi and played two games. He stopped 55 of 58 shots. The IceRays, who were desperate for a goaltender, had found one and won back-to-back games.

Then Wilkie had a talk with his friend, Ryan Cruthers, the coach of the IceRays.

“He was like, ‘Wow, this kid is good.’ We just had a couple injuries here and that was in the back of my mind when I called him and said we need an emergency backup goalie,” Wilkie said. “He was like, ‘Do you want Akira?’ I said, ‘Yes, could I please?’ Then when he got here, he was better than the guys we had here. It was a no-brainer in terms of our decision-making. We just had to cut through the red tape and make it right by them and get everything squared away for Akira.”

Schmid came to Omaha and played one game on a trial basis before the Lancers officially acquired him from the IceRays for future considerations. Cruthers wasn’t the only member of the IceRays Wilkie knew was affected by the trade. Wilkie’s son, Coltan, plays for Corpus Christi and is committed to Colorado College.

“Yeah, he was pretty mad about it,” Wilkie said.

It was a season-altering move for the Lancers. Schmid is tied for the league lead with a .925 save percentage and is second with a 2.13 goals against average. None of the other seven goalies that have played for Omaha have a save percentage better than 3.35 or a save percentage better than .892.

“Big, athletic, played the puck very well, made saves that other guys just can’t make,” Wilkie said of his first impressions. “He sees the puck well when he’s on, and even when he’s off, he’s still pretty damn good. He’s prototypical, because he’s 6-foot-5, he’s athletic, he’s aggressive in the net and his fundamentals are solid.

“They’re still very much teenagers, young men growing into their maturity. I just treat the guys like my own kids at that age. Put him in a good house, make sure he’s comfortable, keep talking to him and help him through the process. I’m sure there was a little bit of culture shock there, but I think he’s pretty laid-back and pretty laissez-faire, kind of like water running off a duck’s butt sometimes. I could see if he was a Type A or a nervous, anxious personality that would affect him more, but with Akira I don’t think anything affects him too much.”

Schmid’s busy year continued when he left the Lancers midseason to join the Swiss national team for the IIHF world junior championships in British Columbia. While he was gone, Wilkie changed goaltending coaches.

Enter Jason Power, a St. Louis resident who has spent two decades tutoring goalies in various capacities, including several who went on to play in the NHL.

“My first week with the team, neither of our current goalies were with us,” Power said. “I think he was more scared to meet me than I was happy to see him. I saw him and I was like, ‘You’re 6-5. Act like it.’ He was kind of turtling with his shoulders.

“We have fun and that’s my big thing. They’re going to see a merry-go-round of coaches that are going to tell them everything under the sun. We’re just going to relax and fine-tune. I’m a big believer that if this is a strength, we’re going to make it stronger while also working on your weakness. I’m not the guy who comes in and says, ‘I’m going to change how you play.’ I hate that shit.”

Schmid got off to a strong start with the Lancers, but he and the team sagged a little just before he left for the WJC. Wilkie thought he was getting tired after not playing for so long at the beginning of the season. After returning and beginning to work with Power, he went from playing well to dominating.

Omaha is 12-3-4 since Jan. 11 and has closed the gap on Sioux City for the sixth and final playoff spot in the USHL’s West conference, to three points with 13 games to play.

“You talk with the Devils, and Scotty Clemmensen will send me a text and we have a good rapport going on because of Akira. He goes, ‘Man, he looks just relaxed and calm. He looked great,’” Power said. “It’s gotten to the point where we are so comfortable with Akira in net that during games, it’s just kind of like, ‘OK.’ You’re not coaching him in the games at that point. He’s just focused and he’s been a fucking wall, pardon the f-bomb. He’s been great.”

Schmid has obvious strengths — his size and athleticism. He is working with Power on plenty of other parts of his game, but the noticeable progress is part of the reason he’s a more intriguing NHL prospect now than he might have been six months ago.

“The way I operate is every single day we identify three things, just three little things — small, middle and the major thing we’re going to work on,” Power said. “I don’t give a shit what you do the rest of the practice. It’s those three things. If you want to ninja-kick pucks, then so be it. But these three things are what we’re going to work on.

“It’s to the point where we have practice and Akira is like, ‘OK, what’s my three things?’ So, I ask him what he wants them to be to make him self-reflect a little. Then, throughout practice he’ll hear me yelling one, two or three, and the other guys might not be dialed in, but he’s just, ‘Got it!’ and he’s shaking his head. And you can see it immediately impact what he’s doing right there in that drill. (Wilkie) loves that stuff, because he can see it.

“He’s so comfortable right now that it’s an easy job. The biggest thing about him is he’s a sponge for more info. He wants to learn and he likes it. It’s a fun environment. He said he wasn’t having fun before. If he’s having fun, he’s going to learn.”

Here’s a summation of some of the tips that have ended up on Schmid’s list at various points of the season:

* Using his stick more, instead of just relying on his legs to make saves

“The big plague in goalies today — the goalies here in the USHL are given their sticks, but these kids in midget who go spend $200-$300 on these sticks and then never use them,” Power said. “They’re just always kicking at pucks and it’s like, ‘My god, where do you think it’s going after you make that save?’ It’s going back on a shooter’s stick, and then you’re burned. So our biggest thing is (having an) active stick.

“Not just when you go down and make a save. If that thing is loose, I want you playing it. Be a third defenseman. That’s where Akira is really deadly. He’s getting 13, 14 puck touches per game where he’s cycling the puck up and other goalies might only be getting two.”

Wiklie noted that Schmid’s puck-handling skills have been a huge boon for the Lancers, to the point where he alters elements of his defensive system when Schmid plays versus another goaltender.

“We were playing a game in overtime and he skated the puck all the way up to the blue line and then walked a guy,” Power said. “And you’re like, ‘Ooooh, Jesus,’ and then when he’s skating back to the net, I was just thinking that we’d better win. And we did.”

* Staying on his feet as much as possible

“I see the guys just wanting to go down on then slide around on the ice,” Power said. “Guess where we are getting scored on? Nope, if you make that initial save and you can do it, we want you back up on your feet. If you make that initial save and you can count one, two and the next shot isn’t there, get up. Recover to your feet. You’re always quicker moving around on your feet than you are on those snowplows.”

* Being more active with his glove and catching more pucks

“The problem is these kids, none of them played baseball,” Power said. “It’s a crime. Not a damn one’s got a glove. You go watch film from the ’90s and guys are just whipping out windmills (for glove saves). You’ll see a kid watch the puck go over the glove and it’s like, ‘You can move that thing up (to catch it).’

“We’ve been working with tennis balls, reaction balls. Pattern recognition is another big thing off the ice. We have some card games that are really mental work, pattern recognition stuff. It’s deadly, because now he’s getting faster and faster. It’s recognition and problem-solving and he can carry it over onto the ice.”

Schmid was on the Swiss WJC roster last year, but he didn’t get in a game. Before the season, he said one of his goals was to make an impact for his country in that tournament.

He didn’t start the first game, a 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic. Schmid was in net for the second game to face the hosts, Canada, at Rogers Center in Vancouver.

One of the three assistant coaches for Canada was Brent Kisio, the head coach of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

“I was like, ‘I’ve got to show him that they made a mistake,’” Schmid said.

Schmid stopped 29 of 32 shots, and the Swiss nearly pulled off the upset in a 3-2 loss.

“We were at that game. That was my first viewing of him other than training camp,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously the size, and he moves really well. He tracks pucks pretty well. He looks like the modern day, 6-foot-5 athletic goaltender.”

“It was crazy, like 17,000 people,” Schmid said. “You don’t even really recognize the upper bowl of the stadium, but of course you hear them. Especially if the whole arena is against you. After their first goal, it was so loud. It was really fun to play in that game. I’m glad that I got to.”

His next game did not go as well, when he stopped 34 of 41 shots in a 7-4 loss to Russia. He did stop 23 of 25 shots in relief during a 6-1 loss in the semifinals against eventual champion Finland.

Once Schmid returned to Omaha, the Lancers have made a mad dash toward playoff contention despite not having a single skater among the league’s top 65 scorers.

Schmid’s work has saved their season, and possibly changed his status as a prospect.

“I do think he can play in the NHL. Akira is adaptable,” Power said. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes, and he’s such a student of the game that he picks up on things. To me, his biggest attribute is his dialed-in focus on perfectionism. Everything he does, he’ll do it five, six, seven times if he has to, just to make sure it’s flawless. I don’t know if somebody taught him that or if that’s just his personality.

“The other thing is you look at it and let’s be real. He’s now starting to dominate the USHL and it’s a great league. He’s going to be able to make the next step. You see kids at this junior level in the USHL and the NAHL and it’s like, ‘OK, I can see it in there’ and it will be there (eventually). With him, it’s like, ‘OK, he’s already got it.’ He’s a step ahead of where everyone is trying to be and at the same age. It’s not ‘I think this kid will be great four years from now and we’ll take a flyer on him.’ … You can see it now.”

The next step could be a tricky one for Schmid. There has been interest from NCAA programs, and it’s something Schmid might be interested in, as well. But there’s a catch.

Because Schmid played one game for Lethbridge, he is currently ineligible to play NCAA hockey. He and the school he attends would need to petition the NCAA to grant him eligibility. Between the game in Lethbridge and possibly the one game he played for the SCL Tigers in Switzerland’s highest league (thereby making him a professional), the NCAA could suspend his eligibility for an entire season, or flat out deny him.

The other options include staying in Omaha for another year and then turning pro with the Devils, or trying to get drafted in the CHL import draft again. Even if Schmid did choose the NCAA route, he could play another season in Omaha before going to college.

“We are going to wait for the season to end, but Omaha has been great to him,” Roy said. “They’ll get first dibs. The first conversation will be with Omaha.”

Wilkie thinks Schmid’s path should be clear.

“We want him here,” he said. “I think that’s the best thing for him and where he should be. He’s got a home and he’s comfortable and he’s as stable as he can be.

“There’s been numerous goalies in the past few years who have gone from this league to the AHL and are now sniffing at NHL rosters. I know colleges want him because he’s good, but there’s a lot of red tape there and it might overcomplicate the process. Akira, in my mind, just needs to focus on getting better every day and staying steady on the rudder.”

Regardless of where Schmid ends up next season, it’s going to be tough to top the chaos and adversity he faced at the beginning of this campaign. Plan A did not work out, but Plans B (and C) might end up being the tipping point for a long and successful career.

“It’s a big adjustment. He’s going from Western Canada to Texas to the Midwest,” Roy said. “He’s got such a good, laid-back personality. He took it all in stride. His English is very-much improved. Honestly, it’s been a great growing experience for him. He’s been great all the way through. He’s never been one to call me and be like, ‘Oh, I’m so frustrated. I hate this.’ He’s been great. That’s the part that has amazed me about the kid is his attitude.

“It’s very much a growing year for him, as a person and a player. I think now he can handle pretty much any situation, and he knows that which is great.”

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