MANKATO — Lucas Sowder and Nathan Smith didn’t know how to ice skate when they started talking about wanting to play college hockey together.
“We grew up playing roller hockey together from the time we were 6 years old,” Sowder said. “We started off on the same team and did that until we were 11 or 12, when we switched to ice hockey.
“We’ve always had the idea of wanting to play college hockey together.”
Sowder and Smith were born less than a month apart in the fall of 1998 and lived about 15 miles apart, in northwest suburbs of Tampa, Fla. They first met when they played on the same roller hockey team as kindergartners.
The only time the Minnesota State University freshmen have been apart since then is over the past three years.
Years apart in juniors
After putting up gaudy numbers in Florida high school hockey — Sowder recorded 233 points and Smith had 184 in three seasons at Mitchell High — Sowder played three years of junior hockey for Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild of the British Columbia Hockey League, while Smith played the past two seasons for the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Roughriders of the United States Hockey League.
Their dream that started more than a decade ago — to play college hockey together — has become a reality this season.
The 21-year-old best friends have shown the same skill sets at the college level that have made them standouts at every other level at which they’ve played.
“It’s definitely exciting, considering we’ve talked about this since our early years,” said Smith, a 2018 third-round NHL Draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets. “We talked about playing college hockey together a lot, but never knew for sure if it’d be possible.”
When Smith took his official visit to MSU, the Mavericks coaches asked him and his father if they knew of any other junior players the coaches should take a look at.
“We put some bugs in their ears (about Sowder) right away,” Smith said.
Sowder jumped at the opportunity when the MSU coaches came calling. He committed to the Mavericks on his 19th birthday, Nov. 15, 2017, and he could not wait to tell Smith, who had announced his commitment to the Mavericks just more than two months prior, on Sept. 2, 2017.
“I shot him a text right away … actually, I might have still been on the phone with the (MSU) coaches when I texted him,” Sowder said with a laugh.
Contributing to Mavs
Smith and Sowder have adjusted nicely to the college game.
Sowder was thrown right into the fire, slotting in on the first line when senior forward Parker Tuomie was held out of the Mavericks’ regular-season opener against Arizona State. Sowder recorded a goal and two assists as MSU swept the Sun Devils in Mankato in early October, earning WCHA Rookie of the Week honors.
He earned that honor again this week thanks to a three-point weekend in a sweep at Ferris State last weekend, when he continued his role on the top line with Toumie and Hobey Baker Award candidate Marc Michaelis.
“Good hockey players like to play with good hockey players, guys who they can give it to because they get into open ice and guys who can see it and get it back to them,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “A lot of guys like playing with Marc and with Parker, but those guys like playing with Lucas, too, because of his hockey IQ and his ability to make plays in time and space. He’s a guy who’s not 215 pounds, but he doesn’t have any fear of getting to the dirty areas.“
Sowder, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound left-shot winger, enters this weekend’s series at No. 15-ranked Bowling Green with 19 points — tied for second-most in the country among freshmen — while Smith has four goals and 16 points in 21 games for the No. 3-ranked Mavericks (20-3-1 overall), who were the first team in college hockey to reach 20 wins this season.
“Sowder, he sees the ice really well and is a good playmaker,” Smith said. “He’s just a talented guy.
“We’re always there for each other, through the highs and lows. He’s done a really good job of managing that this year. I wouldn’t even say he’s had ups and downs. He’s a successful guy and has had a very solid year all around.”
Smith, a 6-feet, 185 pounds, plays a heavy game and, like Sowder, has outstanding vision on the ice.
“He likes the physical part of the game, likes to hit people a little more than I do,” Sowder said with a laugh. “His hockey IQ is through the roof. He sees so many things on the ice that other people don’t.
“And his skills are ridiculous, so good. There’s a reason he’s a third-round draft pick. I know he’ll be playing in the NHL one day.”
Big weekend ahead at Bowling Green
After a long trip to Big Rapids, Mich., for last weekend’s series against Ferris State, MSU faces another tough challenge this weekend when it plays at Bowling Green, a team that has given the Mavericks fits since joining the WCHA.
Bowling Green has won three of the past five meetings against MSU, including sweeping two games at Bowling Green last season and winning one of two at Mankato earlier this season.
“They’re hard to play against, extremely competitive and talented,” Hastings said. “They have good depth, good goaltending and special teams. They’re a tough out, and we’re playing in their building. The last time we were there, they swept us, so we have a hill to climb.”
The Falcons are playing with a sense of urgency. They enter the weekend ranked No. 23 in the PairWise, the rankings that mimic the process used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. MSU enters the weekend ranked No. 3 in the PairWise.
MSU (14-2-0 WCHA, 20-3-1 overall) is also looking to extend its lead atop the conference standings, while the fourth-place Falcons (8-6-2, 13-9-2) are battling to stay in the top half of an ultra-competitive league.
Records mean little with these teams, though. In 23 meetings since Bowling Green joined the WCHA, MSU holds a slim 11-10-2 series lead.
“It’s that close,” Hastings said. “It’s a goal here, a goal there. I just think, when you’re playing a team like Bowling Green they bring out the best in you. … They’re about as good of a team as we’ll see at defending their own blue line. They’re very aggressive at making sure you don’t enter their zone with possession. Both teams have had good special teams, so you’d better be disciplined.
“It’s a great test all the way around. The intensity gets ratcheted up because of where everybody’s at in the standings, where everybody’s at in the PairWise … these are very important points.”