Deep in the Heart of Texas
It is not uncommon for the Texas Rangers or Dallas Cowboys to draft native Texans in their respective drafts, considering the Lone Star State has produced such legends as Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Earl Campbell and "Mean" Joe Greene. But the Dallas Stars drafting a native Texan in the NHL Entry Draft? Not as far-fetched an idea as you'd think. The Dallas Stars did just that at the recently-completed NHL Entry Draft, selecting Dallas native Austin Smith with their first of four fifth-round picks, No. 128 overall.
There have been other NHL players, such as Brian Leetch, who were born in the Lone Star State, but quickly moved to the country's hockey-rich North. Others, such as former Star Craig Ludwig's twin sons, Tyler and Trevor, weren't born in Texas, but proceeded through the hockey hierarchy in the Dallas area. Finally, Dallas native David McKee signed as an undrafted free agent with the Anaheim Ducks after a stellar collegiate career at Cornell.
However, Austin Smith is the very first born-and-bred North Texan to develop in the Metroplex's grassroots hockey programs and go on to be selected in the NHL Entry Draft. And to be drafted by his hometown Dallas Stars, the club that has been so instrumental in establishing the hockey culture in North Texas?
"It's just a dream come true," said Smith of getting drafted by his hometown club. "I had spoken to about 7-8 other NHL teams heading into the draft, but I was really hoping it was the Stars who took me. When I got the phone call from (Assistant General Manager) Les Jackson, I was really stoked and I haven't been able to wipe the smile off my face since. My phone hasn't stopped ringing and we've just been floating in the clouds."
Smith's hockey 'yellow brick road' began when his family moved to Coppell, and his father, Chuck, took him and his younger brother, Hayden, to a promotional activity at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Valley Ranch.
"The Stars had a promotion called 'Hot Dogs & Hockey Pucks' in Valley Ranch, and it was a fun opportunity for the kids to get out on the ice and do a couple of basic hockey drills," said Chuck Smith, a Dallas fireman. "They hadn't been in town long at that point, but the kids loved it and they really took to the ice like it was natural. From there, all Austin wanted to do was play hockey."
Chuck and his wife, DeeAnna, enrolled young Austin in an eight-week summer hockey program followed by a full-season program at Valley Ranch, and he showed a natural scoring touch right from the beginning. According to his father, Austin led the team in scoring his first three years of hockey, spanning three different levels and age groups, and he continued to progress through the various levels of youth hockey in the area.
The elder Smith incurred the expensive costs of outfitting two young hockey players and paid for Austin's countless travel team trips -- Chuck recalls going to Chicago nine times in one season with one of Austin's teams -- but took his young sons to as many Dallas Stars games as he could afford, watching them become die-hard fans of their hometown team.
"My first Stars game was when I was 6 or 7, and I saw us play Detroit at Reunion Arena," remembered Austin. "That was the first time I ever saw Mike Modano play in person, and he had a goal in that game, but we lost to the Red Wings. It was a great experience and I turned into a big Stars fan, especially during the Stanley Cup season in 1999. I was a big fan of Brett Hull, Jamie Langenbrunner, Sergei Zubov and Modano, and it was a blast to see them win it all."
After continuing his development in the Alliance Bulldogs hockey program, Smith got his big break when he was playing at a Midget AA national tournament at the age of 16. His outstanding play was recognized by Chris Baudo, the head hockey coach at The Gunnery, a prestigious prep school in Washington, Connecticut. Baudo was very interested in having Austin come play at The Gunnery, and he was able to convince him to come visit the campus with his parents.
"We flew up to look at the school, and Austin just fell in love with The Gunnery campus," said Chuck Smith. "Austin really liked the coach and the hockey program there, and he decided that's where he wanted and needed to be. It's a really good school in a very strong league and he'd get a lot of exposure, so we all agreed his chances of getting a college scholarship would be much better there."
Smith excelled both on the ice and in the classroom at The Gunnery for two years, and in 2006-07, led the club in scoring with 43 points (23 goals and 20 assists). Smith will take his talents to the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League next season, and he recently achieved that goal of attaining a college scholarship, as he committed to Colgate University for the 2008 season.
"The coaching staff at Colgate is great, they're a contender every year and they have put out some excellent players, like Andy McDonald," said Smith, who chose the Red Raiders over offers from New Hampshire, Princeton, Yale and Brown. "I want to contribute from Day One at Colgate, so I'm deferring for a year to go play in the BCHL. I want to continue getting stronger and improving all aspects of my game."
Chris Kostopoulos (older brother of Los Angeles Kings forward Tom Kostopoulos), was instrumental in starting the ultra-successful Alliance Bulldogs hockey program here in North Texas in which Austin participated. The program boasts countless Texas state and Rocky Mountain regional championships, as well as numerous appearances in the USA Hockey National Championships.
Kostopoulos coached Smith on two occasions in the Alliance program, and he's not surprised that the young man has become the first native North Texan to be drafted into the National Hockey League.
"Austin is a really talented, competitive kid who always wanted to be the best," said Kostopoulos. "Even amongst his teammates, he wanted to be the best of the bunch, and he always wanted to be around the rink all the time. He wanted to play every second he could, and it reminded me of the old days, when kids would play hockey at the rink, then go home and play hockey, play hockey in the hallways of the hotels on road trips. He loves the game and he's extremely competitive, and that really set him apart."
Rick Hall, who is the President of Alliance Hockey, echoed those sentiments about Smith's love for the game and his willingness to work to be the best.
"There are kids who might be bigger than Austin, but you'll never find a kid anywhere who has more passion for hockey than he does," said Hall, who has known the Smith family for over 10 years now. "The night after he got drafted by the Stars, he played in a men's league game at Valley Ranch that ended at 10:45 or 11 at night. Everybody else skated off but there he was, shooting pucks by himself for a half hour until he got chased from the ice. That's the way he's always been, so this is a great reward for all the hard work he's put in."
Kostopoulos makes it perfectly clear that the Stars' selection of Smith was far from a public relations ploy, confirming that he is a legitimate prospect with very real hopes of reaching the National Hockey League. And he believes that it's an outstanding sign for the future of hockey in North Texas.
"He's got some real offensive capabilities and some natural gifts in terms of having great hands around the net and knowing how to score goals in bunches," said Kostopoulos. "Most of his goals come from within 15 feet and he's a good playmaker who sees the ice really well. His skating is going to improve, as well as his ability to battle along the walls.
"It's a great sign that more and more American kids are getting drafted early, and that scouts are starting to take notice of kids in Dallas and California, for example. Austin's getting drafted makes the NHL seem that much closer to home to kids who are coming up now, because they can actually point to a local kid who grew up here and reached this point in his career. It shows kids that if you work hard enough and you have the right levels of commitment and desire, you can reach the heights you dreamed of. The Stars are doing a lot to foster a lot of the exposure kids have to the sport around here, and we have lots of kids who want to get where Austin is now."
The development of such an extensive youth hockey culture in the Metroplex is a point of deep pride in the Dallas Stars organization, and the club is excited that Austin Smith will be the first of many Dallas natives who make their NHL dreams come true.
"I speak for many people who have been involved in youth hockey in this area for a lot of years in saying that we are really excited about Austin Smith being drafted by the Dallas Stars on Saturday," said Keith Andresen, the Director of Hockey Programs for the Dr Pepper StarCenters. "It says a lot about Austin's talent and character to have reached this point in his hockey career, and we are proud that our team and our rinks provided this young man an entry into the sport. There are so many opportunities for talented young hockey players in the Metroplex now, and we feel this is just the start of a long string of Dallas-area players being selected in the NHL Draft. I wish my personal congratulations to Austin and wish him the best as he pursues his dream of skating in the National Hockey League."