Making an Impression
June 10, 2004
Sitting in his hometown of Verona, Ontario, Mike Smith ponders what it would be like to play for the Dallas Stars next season. It's a dream every hockey player desires from the first time they step on the ice at the age of two, to become an NHL player. This dream is in Smith's grasp and he doesn't want to let it go. Combining his ability as a goaltender and his development over the past two seasons, he believes he can make a difference on an NHL team.
"I have to work hard this summer and try and get that job for myself," said Smith. "I will do everything I can to do that.
Smith actually was called up to the Stars last season on January 7th to backup Stars netminder Marty Turco. It was the first time in his career that he would don an NHL sweater during a regular season game. The 6-3, 189-pound goalie stayed with the team from January 7th to January 27th. Twenty days he will never forget.
"Getting called up for my first time was unbelievable. When I first heard about it from our Utah coach Don Hay, I was in total shock," said Smith. "I had been to training camp and in exhibition games before, but it wasn't the same as getting called up in the regular season by the big club."
Smith did not appear in a contest, but quickly learned that playing on the NHL level is quite different than playing on the American Hockey League (AHL) level. Like a VCR fast-forwarding through a movie at a rapid pace, the Dallas Stars skaters zipped around the 22 year-old goaltender at the Frisco Dr Pepper StarCenter.
"I still remember my first practice when I got called up in January," said Smith. "I got absolutely lit up.
"We had a shootout at the end of practice and I think I stopped one puck. The one shot I did stop I believe came from Aaron Downey."
However, instead of getting frustrated with the situation, Smith chose to look at things from a different angle. He quickly realized that being with the Stars was not just about his play on the ice, but also his image off of it. Learning valuable lessons from certain players on what it was like to be in the NHL, he matured from a 22-year old kid to a 22-year old National Hockey League player. Like a sponge soaking up water, Smith absorbed everything going on around him. Every day he cherished and every minute he learned something new.
"Turco was one guy who really helped me last season," said Smith. "He's a great role model and an outstanding leader for the young goalies who are coming up.
"Not just on the ice, but off the ice as well Marty is a class act. I saw when I got to Dallas how much harder I had to work by watching Marty and Ron Tugnutt."
Having played the last two seasons with the Utah Grizzlies of the AHL, people have noticed a big improvement in his development not only as a goaltender, but as a person as well. In 2002-03, Smith was 5-5-0 with a 3.23 goals-against-average. Last season, he had an 8-11-0 record with the Grizzlies, but saw his goals-against-average improve to 2.83. With two years of professional experience under his belt, he is becoming the goaltender the Stars believed he would be when they selected him during the fifth round (161st overall) of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. There are some in the organization that would say he has been one of the top three athletes at training camp over the past two seasons. Not only that, it is practically impossible to find anyone in the Stars organization that says anything negative about him at all.
"Last year, he came into Utah and continued with his growth. It was a situation that was trying at times for him, but he still made some good strides in his overall game."
Heading into the 2004-05 season, the Stars have three very capable back-ups to Marty Turco. Jason Bacashihua, Dan Ellis and Smith all have an equal chance at winning a spot on the Dallas Stars 23-man roster. It quite possibly could come down to how each of them plays at training camp.
"Right now the job for the backup goalie is open to three guys," Jackson said. "We will give it to whoever we see as the best player and Mike is definitely in that group."
Smith has faith that he will bring everything he has in the tank and prove to the coaching staff that he belongs with the Stars. When he speaks about making the club, you can hear the confidence ringing in his voice and how he is ready for the challenge lying ahead.
"I look forward to the challenge and this opportunity," said Smith. "You couldn't have two better guys to push you in Bacashihua and Ellis.
"I just have to come into camp and prove that I'm the best one. That's what my goal is for the summer, to come into camp as the best goalie."
Only time will tell which one these three young men will start the season with Dallas. Chances are we won't know until the last day of training camp. It should be fun to watch.