Smith pumps up UW hockey
One year after the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team was eliminated in overtime—in its own arena, no less, one game short of the Frozen Four—the Badgers fell .0002 points shy of making the 16-team NCAA tournament field.
Smith perused the returning roster—seven senior forwards, a deep defensive unit and two junior goaltenders—and liked what he saw. When he looked at his scrawny figure in the mirror, he wasn’t so thrilled.
“My first two years, I struggled with the strength, being pushed around by bigger and stronger guys. I knew that I needed to get stronger,” Smith recalled. “If I could improve, I wouldn’t get pushed off the puck, and it would make my job easier.”
Fifteen pounds heavier, Smith’s job for Wisconsin this season has never looked better—a main reason the Badgers are in the position to win the school’s seventh national championship this weekend at Detroit’s Ford Field.
The Badgers face Rochester Institute of Technology at 4 p.m. (CDT) in the Frozen Four semifinals. The winner advances to Saturday’s 6 p.m. championship game against Boston College or Miami (Ohio).
“That redemption from falling short the past two years is making it that much better,” Smith said. “Words can’t describe the feeling.”
Smith—picked No. 27 overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and playing mere miles from his future arena—has been one of the many cogs that have made the engine click for Wisconsin (27-10-4).
He leads the nation’s defensemen with 15 goals, 47 points and a 1.18 points-per-game average, making him one of only two defensemen to average over a point a game. All are career-high numbers that stemmed from being more physical.
“The offseason workouts that (strength coach) Jim Snider does are phenomenal, and I think that built a lot of confidence in him,” UW assistant coach Mark Osiecki. “With strength comes confidence, and that’s definitely has become a factor. He has really matured as a hockey player.”
The results also can be seen from a national perspective, as Smith was named one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Award—given annually to the best U.S. college player since 1981—along with UW senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion. While Geoffrion was named one of the three finalists and will find out Friday if he is the first UW player to receive the award, Smith was on the outside looking in, much to the dismay of his teammates.
“Smitty is a great player,” said Geoffrion. “He’s going to have a long career. He’s probably the most skilled guy on the team, most potential, and I’m real proud of him. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to win awards.”
Nevertheless, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves made it a point to pull Smith aside for a brief talk—reinforcing to Smith what he means to this team, despite the snub.
“On the surface, he was very good about it. But on the inside, I’m sure there is some disappointment of not being included,” Eaves said.
“In our books, he deserves to be there. If anything, I think it will fuel him to play even better at the Frozen Four to show people that he was a deserving candidate.”
While Smith feels Geoffrion is a deserving Hobey winner, the junior isn’t denying that there’s a little extra motivation, compliments of the Hobey committee. With a NHL contract on a back burner and the real possibly that this will be Smith’s last weekend in a Wisconsin uniform, Smith wants to leave everyone with a lasting collegiate impression.
“I want to prove and show everybody who I am,” Smith said. “I do think I could have been one of those nominees, so maybe I can go out there and show that maybe I am one of the top three, and that our team is the best.
“The biggest thing is that even if I was nominated, the Hobey is in my back pocket. The first task is RIT, and the second is a national title.”
Last updated: 1:39 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012