By Patrick Kennedy
The Kingston Whig-Standard
As much as anything – the Texas-plated Cadillac Escalade, the sleek 21-foot motorboat, even the seven-figure contract – goalkeeper Mike Smith’s meteoric rise in hockey is reflected in the beige and brown Takamine guitar with the stamped G inside the body.
“Garth Brooks gave it to me,” Smith tells a visitor, a tad embarrassed at dropping the name of the superstar country artist.
Smith picks up the six-string flat-top and plucks a few soft chords, the sweet sound echoing around the pool outside his parents’ fashionable Verona home.
A couple of years ago, the only way Smith sees Garth Brooks up close is with a front-row concert ticket, that is if the Brooks’ tour makes a stop in sleepy Des Moines, Iowa.
This past February, Brooks delivered a private 45-minute show for Smith and his Dallas Stars teammates, coaches and their families, an informal meet-and-greet gig in a small room at the club’s American Airlines Centre.
The impromptu session was the popular singer’s way of thanking the club for its participation in his Teammates For Kids Foundation. Earlier that evening, the Stars and Colorado Avalanche combined to raise $10,000, money pledged for each save, shot, goal, fight, you name it. Brooks tripled all pledges.
After the post-game performance, Smith approached Brooks.
“I don’t know where I got the berries to ask him for his guitar,” the goaltender recalled, laughing. “I actually offered to buy it and donate the money to his foundation. He said I couldn’t have that particular one because it was a special edition, but he said he had others at home.
“Three days later I got the guitar, and on the fourth day he called the team and asked: ‘Did Smitty get the guitar?’ I couldn’t believe it – Garth Brooks calling me Smitty.”
Just another pinch-me moment in the burgeoning big-league career of Verona’s first and only National Hockey League player.
Look up perseverance in the dictionary and there should be a picture of the big nimble netminder with the spiked haircut and ready smile. He may play guitar but he’s been playing second fiddle for much of his hockey career, save for a two-year stint with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said from the spacious family room that looks out on Hardwood Creek and a one-hole – 50-yards tee to green – golf course he and his dad, Ron, built and christened Smithgusta. “I’m used to it.”
Years ago, when he was with the Kingston Frontenacs, the strong play of a fellow named Andrew Raycroft – and later Peter Hamerlik – practically nailed Smith to the pine. Unhappy with his hometown team, he was traded to the Wolves, whose coach, the late Bert Templeton, phoned Ottawa 67’s coach Brian Kilrea for a further assessment of Smith.
“I don’t even think he starts at practice,” cracked Killer.
Smith turned pro in 2002, splitting the season between Lexington of the ECHL and Utah of the American Hockey League. His Lexington tenure was highlighted by a goal he scored in the final minute of a game, but he played only 11 games for Utah as the third-string goalie.
The next year he battled Dan Ellis for the backup position and followed that with a season in Houston, where he shared duties with Josh Harding.
He joined the Iowa Stars in 2005 and by season’s end had finally earned the No. 1 job.
Last spring, he excelled at the Stars’ NHL training camp and was named as veteran Marty Turco’s backup.
Now that he’s made it to the big time, the journey is far from over. In fact, it’s just begun, for Smith has his eye on Turco’s job. “I know my role with this team but my ultimate goal is to be a starter.” he stated, even if that means one day bumping aside his mentor and close friend.
“Marty was once in the same boat with [Eddie] Belfour, who was not the best goalie to play behind,” Smith said. “I remember my first NHL camp with Dallas, Marty took me under his wing and Belfour didn’t say as much as two words to me the whole time.
“Like any goalie, Marty wants and needs to be pushed. It’s good for him, good for me and good for the team.”
The strapping six-foot-four, 215-pounder said the facts of professional life are simple. “If you don’t perform … you won’t have a job. There are always people looking to take over.”
Those seeking to do so have their work cut out.
Smith, 25, capped a fine freshman NHL campaign by being selected to the league’s all-rookie team, joining Pittsburgh forwards Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, Colorado’s Paul Stastny and San Jose rearguards Matt Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
He appeared in 23 games and posted a 12-5-2 mark with a 2.23 goals-against average and three shutouts. Twice he earned the league’s Third Star of the Week and became the first goalie in franchise history to debut with a shutout, a 22-save 3-0 decision over the Phoenix Coyotes.
Stars veteran Mike Modano, in 1990, is the only other player in franchise history named to the all-rookie squad.
Smith called the season “a dream come true.”
“Playing in the NHL was more than I imagined,” he said. “It’s unbelievable the way you’re treated, how you travel . Our team has its own private plane.
“No more eight-hour bus trips to and from games, with stops at Wendy’s,” said Smith. “Now we can order a steak right on the plane.” A likeable, laid-back lad, Smith, the youngest of Ron and Ingrid’s two sons, has forgotten neither his roots nor the people who helped him along the way.
The first Mike Smith Charity Golf Tournament, July 26 at Verona’s Rivendell Golf Course, will raise money for renovations to the Piccadilly Arena in Godfrey, his first hockey home. As well, a portion of the money is earmarked for North Frontenac minor hockey. “He’s a good ol’ Verona boy with an appreciation of family, friends and community,” said Terry Gibson, who organized the sold-out event (144 golfers, 18 corporate sponsors). He said the fundraising target is $25,000.
As for the rest of the summer, Smith will keep fit with daily workouts at his old high school in Sydenham and help with the first phase of construction – a garage with living quarters – of a future home on nearby Howes Lake.
Smith is lending the contractor a hand. It’s the way he was raised. “When it’s done, I want to be able to say I had a part in building it, and not just pounding in a few nails. I’m not one to sit back and watch things happen.”
Phase II, the house, is slated to go up in 2009.
There is also a significant other in his life. Her name is Brigitte Acton, a national team alpine skier from Sault Ste. Marie who competed at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin and placed first in slalom at the 2006 Canadian championships. The two met at Soo native Turco’s golf tourney last year.
For all the wonderful things that happened to Smith this year, he did have to endure one scare. In a game against Edmonton, Oiler defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron uncorked a 30-foot slapshot that Smith never saw. The puck struck him dead centre on the mask, breaking the helmet and driving the steel cage inward until it touched his nose. He sustained a concussion and whiplash and was out of commission for three weeks.
Smith ordered a new mask and used the chance to pay tribute to newfound pal Brooks, whose air-brushed countenance graces the new face protector.