SCOTTSDALE – The last time Nick Schmaltz and Troy Stecher were on the ice together, they were celebrating the 2016 NCAA Division I National Championship with their University of North Dakota teammates.
Six years and many teams later, the pair are reunited in Arizona and hoping to build off bonds forged so long ago.
Schmaltz was drafted 20th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014 after playing his freshman and sophomore years at North Dakota. After three years with the Blackhawks, he was traded to Arizona, where he has established himself as part of a young Coyotes core.
Stecher has a more roundabout path, bouncing from organization to organization. He spent three years at North Dakota before signing with the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent in 2016. After four years in the Canucks organization, Stecher had stints in Detroit and Los Angeles before agreeing to a one-year deal with the Coyotes in July.
While the paths have been different, Schmaltz and Stecher are thankful that they’ve brought them together again, this time in the desert.
“It’s great to see him,” Schmaltz said. “It’s always fun seeing old college teammates, especially a guy that you won a championship with.”
Stecher was a sophomore when Schmaltz came to North Dakota as a freshman. He remembers the first time meeting Schmaltz, describing him as a ”really quiet kid.” Before arriving at North Dakota, Schmaltz already was regarded as a top NHL prospect ready to dominate college hockey.
“His older brother, Jordan (Schmaltz), was already there a class above me, so there was some familiarity,” Stecher said. “He’s super talented on the ice, and I know our team as a whole were excited for not just Nick, but their whole (freshmen) class. So it was exciting to have them.”
That freshmen class, including 2016 freshman and Canucks 2015 first-round pick Brock Boeser, were key contributors to the Fighting Hawks’ national championship team.
UND finished the year 34-6-4 and entered the NCAA Tournament as the third overall seed and top seed in the Midwest Regional. In the first round, the Fighting Hawks defeated Northeastern and then downed Michigan in the regional final.
At the Frozen Four in Tampa, UND defeated the University of Denver on a Schmaltz goal with 56 seconds remaining to play in the game. UND advanced to face Quinnipiac in the championship, winning 5–1 to claim the program’s eighth national title and first since 2000.
“There’s so many different things you could look at that I think helped us win that year,” Stecher said. “I think everybody believed in themselves individually as a hockey player, which first and foremost was important, just for the fact that it kind of pushed everybody in practice to be at their best.
“We became a better team over time and had just the right mix of grit, skill, passion and heart. The team was really, really special.”
Schmaltz sees similarities between that 2016 UND team and the current Coyotes group, and believes adding Stecher to a team that is young and developing will help with team chemistry and culture.
“At UND, we had a very close-knit group,” Schmaltz said. “I think we have a lot of the same things going on here where a lot of guys like to get together away from the rink and just build that team bonding. So I think if we could take a little bit of that from the college days, it would be great. It’s always fun when you’re playing with some of your best friends.”
Jayson Hajdu, UND’s former assistant athletic director, sees Stecher and Schmaltz as “complete opposite personalities,” but said the two players share a couple of important traits: competitiveness and a commitment to winning.
“Nick is more of a laid-back type, which also reflected his play on the ice,” Hajdu said. “He has a very low panic point with the puck. Troy is more of an extrovert, more intense. He is a battler on the ice. They both fit in the locker room and became two crucial people on the way to a national title.”
After signing in Arizona, Schmaltz was the first person Stecher called after he spoke with the team’s management. Stecher also had previous experience playing for Coyotes coach André Tourigny in the World Championships for Canada.
“He (Schmaltz) had nothing but good things to say (about Arizona),” Stecher said. “Obviously, he signed a long-term contract when he got traded here and spends his summers here. So, obviously he enjoys being around the area.”
The 2022-23 season has not gone as planned for Schmaltz. He suffered an upper-body injury against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 13 and will be out six to eight weeks. Regardless of the injury, the Coyotes believe in Schmaltz as a part of their core.
After being traded to Arizona in 2018, the Coyotes signed Schmaltz to a seven-year contract, underscoring the franchise’s belief in him. Schmaltz is equally committed to the city and organization.
He is coming off a career year in 2022 that included a Coyotes franchise-record seven-point game in an 8-5 victory over Ottawa in March. Schmaltz scored two goals and finished with five assists against the Senators.
“That’s probably the best stretch of hockey I’ve had in my career,” Schmaltz said. “So I hope that I can just build off of that and try to get better. There’s always areas I can improve on and just try to be a productive player and a good teammate.”
Stecher, on the other hand, is betting on himself this season. He signed a one-year contract hoping to prove himself and earn a long-term deal next season. After having an injury-riddled first half, including a wrist injury last season, Stecher envisions having a big season with the Coyotes if he can build on his finish with the Kings.
“(I’m) just trying to find a spot on this team in a role that I can embrace and show up to the rink every day understanding what my assignment is and what they expect out of me,” Stecher said. “I never want to get complacent, but I was pretty content with the progress I made in my rehab (last season). And then I was able to get back in the lineup in the playoffs for L.A. and play really well. So hopefully this year, kick off where I left off and continue to build.”
Whether or not Stecher bounces back this season, the bonds and the memories he and Schmaltz share together and with their UND championship teammates remain. They always will.
“The ties run deep within that program,” Hajdu said of North Dakota. “I know those two are jacked to be together again. I haven’t talked to them for a while, but I can imagine how excited they are to get back on the ice again. You kind of watch them grow up through the program and go from scared little freshmen, to young men, and then to professionals. It’s been fun following their careers.”