By Katrina Waugh
The Roanoke Times
ROANOKE, Va. – On a chilly night in late December, Travis Smith entered the back door of the Roanoke Civic Center and headed toward the hallway that leads to the locker rooms. He’d traversed it hundreds of times during five seasons playing for the Roanoke Express.
This time, though, he stopped short of the hall and waited for help.
On this night he wasn’t there to deliver a hit. He was delivering sandwiches for the visiting team.
A few weeks later, Smith answered an emergency call from Roanoke Express coach Tony MacAulay who found his team shorthanded because of injuries and call ups.
A year and a half after retiring, Travis Smith is back with the Roanoke Express.
Smith, 30, never really planned to retire, but at the end of the 2001-02 season he and seven teammates had become veterans. By ECHL rules, each team can have only four veterans. Then-coach Perry Florio waived Smith.
“They didn’t call me, so I quit,” Smith said.
Smith never stopped skating, but “obviously it isn’t the same.”
Years of bumps and bruises had finally healed, all but the nagging pain from a once-broken left wrist that will likely never go away. It had been a long time since he’d taken a hit. Still when MacAulay called needing help for the weekend of Jan. 9-10, Smith suited up.
“It was weird in a way, I hadn’t practiced and all of a sudden I’m out there trying not to make a fool out of myself,” Smith said. “I decided I would just try to do what I used to do.”
The game was moving pretty fast and Smith didn’t have as much endurance as he did when he was in training, but still he felt like he played pretty well.
“He started right off as if he hadn’t not been playing,” MacAulay said. “He fit right in.”
Of course, MacAulay didn’t see Smith on Sunday morning.
“Sunday was the worst,” Smith admitted. “I was just … achy.”
He was also hooked.
“Nobody told me not to come, so I kept showing up,” he joked.
MacAulay isn’t about to let him leave.
“The best thing about him is that you don’t notice him until he unleashes one of his thunderous hits,” MacAulay said. “The forwards like it. They always get the passes. We went through a 10-game stretch where all but two players were in the minus and Smitty was one of them. We’re thankful to have a guy like that now. He’s a good solid addition.”
Smith has played 16 games, earning one assist and 20 penalty minutes. He said the players have changed, but not the atmosphere.
“It’s definitely fun,” Smith said. “It’s funny to watch everybody make fun of each other.
“It makes me feel younger. Being around the guys, you kind of relive your younger days.”
Smith said he’s still a little stiff “but my body’s over the shock of it.” He’s getting his wind back, but said his timing is still a little off.
“I try to take it cool and easy, not run at people,” Smith said. “If the hit’s there, I’ll hit ’em hard, but I’m not going to take any drastic chances.”
That’s what MacAulay called Smith’s “effective decision making,” an example Smith’s youthful teammates can learn to follow.
“I think I’ve helped a little bit with my defensive play,” said Smith, a stay-at-home-style defenseman who had 20 goals and 61 assists in his first five seasons with the Express. “Hopefully people can learn a little bit from how I play – keep the puck out. Hopefully they can learn a little off me not just for now but for next year.”
Smith has made his home in Roanoke. His wife, Renee, grew up in Abingdon and is the principal of the Rivermont School in Lynchburg. The two bought a house and are expecting a baby in April.
Smith, who has as bachelor’s degree in management from the University of Denver, worked at the Ice Station for almost a year before taking the job at Cornerstone.
Smith said he had considered making a comeback this season, but never did much more than think.
“I had a good run at it, and I’ve got other things going on,” he said. “But when Tony called, I got the itch again.”
That itch, though, is not strong enough to make Smith give up his day job. He said he’s prepared to play out the rest of the season, if needed, but still plans to work a few shifts at Cornerstone – “It helps me stay busy. I get bored sitting around at home now,” Smith said – and return to full time when the season ends.
This second-chance season, Renee Smith said, is a chance for Travis to write a better finish to his hockey career.
“There was no closure,” Renee Smith said. “I don’t feel like he was treated fairly.
“He did not have a good last year there with the coach and it left a bad taste in his mouth. Now he’s needed. He’s playing, he’s beating out younger guys. Now he can say ‘OK I’m done.’ He can leave on his terms, if he wants to.”