Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories profiling some of the likely finalists for the 2012 Hobey Baker Award.
At 5-foot-5, he never had a prayer of playing elite prep-school hockey.
The skinny Texan never was going to amount to anything more than a depth player in the fast and furious British Columbia Hockey League. NCAA hockey? Maybe some Division III program might take a flyer on him.
Now, he’s a third-tier prospect at best, a “feel-good,” late-round draft pick of his local NHL franchise.
And Colgate senior Austin Smith has absolutely no shot at winning the Hobey Baker Award.
The Raiders winger has never amounted to anything special, because you can’t simply wish your way to a taller frame, greater strength or a new place of birth. He was born to do something, sure, but the kid who admits to having never topped 170 pounds was never meant for hockey.
“If I didn’t play hockey, I wouldn’t be up here, for sure,” he said. “I hate the weather. Don’t like much about being up here, other than the hockey. I’d probably be going to school in Texas — probably UT — maybe playing golf, maybe baseball if I was good enough. I really like baseball. I have no idea what I’d do with a degree after college. I still don’t know.”
Smith has a scant few months to deduce what his life after hockey will hold. In the meantime, the Lone Star long shot immerses himself in his schoolwork and continues to dabble in the sport. He plays for Colgate, which is located somewhere in the vast “upstate” region of New York (Hamilton, if you can find that on a map). It’s not a hockey powerhouse, playing in competitive but small-market ECAC Hockey and promoting academics more than athletics (on par with Cornell, Middlebury, Georgetown and Dartmouth, per Newsweek).
Furthermore, he has a 3.5 grade point average as a sociology and anthropology major, with a minor in — get this — theater. Maybe Smith isn’t at Colgate to play hockey. But he does his best to act the part, as befits a studious thespian.
“From the day I met him — when I first saw him play, when he was 15 or 16 years old — he was so ultra-competitive,” said Smith’s high school coach, Chris Baudo of The Gunnery School in Washington, Conn. “He is incredibly focused, he is incredibly driven and he is confident. Not arrogant, just confident in his ability to be successful if he works hard enough.
“He has always been ultra-focused, and willing to do anything to prove any naysayers wrong.”
“Coming from Texas, for him coming up and playing in Canada, he wanted to prove to everybody that he was the real deal,” said Penticton Vees head coach Fred Harbinson, who guided Smith through a season in the BCHL. “I think he clearly did that here, and I think he took that same passion when he went on to college. A lot of people say they want to be a pro, but there’s a heck of a lot more that goes into it other than just saying it, and I think he realizes it. I think he’ll do just about anything to get there.”
Laid back? Only on the outside
He must be working hard: All that time studying the role of “star winger” landed him a spot on the Raiders’ top line, and he’s clearly caught his coach’s eye.
“He approaches life like he does hockey: He’s a competitive person, he’s intense,” said Colgate coach Don Vaughan. “I think he comes across as kind of laid back, but there’s a whole lot going on in there at the same time.”
— Austin Smith
A method actor, perhaps? Maybe that is why Smith worked so hard for all those goals he scored this year, 36 and still counting. You can’t play the lead if you don’t know how to deliver big lines. Apparently, goal-collecting became a side hobby for Austin before he even got to college; from the sounds of things, the top such hobbyist in the nation (nine goals ahead of second-place Reilly Smith of Miami) has been an elite lamplighter for years.
“His speed is obviously what caught any hockey person’s eye right away. But as he grew throughout the season, he had a knack for scoring big goals, and it was just because I think he had such a competitive drive in him. His motor just never stopped,” said Harbinson. “As the year went on he kept getting better and better, and I remember going into the playoffs that year we always kind of wondered — in the playoffs, everything gets tighter, gets tougher, gets more physical — how was he going to handle that?
“He handled it by being our leading scorer in the playoffs, and when we got to the BCHL final he scored the first goal in every game. It was just amazing, when the chips were down.”
Chip on his shoulder
For the number of times that Smith has been told he can’t, he sure did an awful lot. They say everything’s bigger in Texas, and the chip on Smith’s shoulder fits the bill as truly Texan.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” said Vaughan. “I think he’s always sizing himself up with some of the other players he’s played against who have gone on to play pro, or put up numbers at other schools, so I definitely think there’s some of that. Obviously, coming from a non-traditional hockey area and having to prove that he is what everybody thinks he is, yeah. He’s in a small market, a small school; we don’t get the same attention that a lot of the bigger schools do. We’re seeing that now … in terms of his chances for the Hobey.
“I think he gets hurt in some ways by the fact that he’s at Colgate, and I think that’s really unfair. His play, his numbers and everything else speaks for themselves. He deserves to be in the same company as anybody else who’s being discussed for this award.”
Baudo recalls his own experiences with Smith’s competitive hunger.
“His final year here before he got drafted, there were a bunch of pro scouts,” he said. “We played a game against Westminster, and Westminster had [Boston College senior] Tommy Cross, who was expected to be a … late first-round, second-round pick, and we saw a couple of the pro guys after the game. Austin had played very well and had done a very nice job out there against Tommy, because obviously they were matching lines that day.
“The pro scout said, ‘We knew that Austin was going to be successful, and it’s not about his hands, and it’s not about his feet. All that’s great. He’s like a bulldog. We knew that he was going to get inside of him, that he was going to outcompete him, he’s going to win battles in the corner just because he’s so tenacious.’ I really think that that is what makes the difference for him at Colgate, and I think that will make the difference for him moving forward.”
Blessing in disguise
Smith himself related a tale of a Berkshire Prep coach who had interest in wooing him away from Baudo and The Gunnery, but showed concern for the prospect’s size and skill.
“We beat them both times we played them, and I scored a hat trick the second game,” Smith said.
“It’s the little things you remember, people that just told you you couldn’t make it. Even when I was younger, I’ve always had to be the hardest worker and most committed to make anything happen. It’s funny now, too, to look back at some of the people in Dallas who claim to be supporting me now, that back when I was younger told me I didn’t even have a chance to even play AAA, or whatever it was. That’s kind of been my motivation the whole way, and that’s kind of been my game, too. I kind of play with an ‘eff you’ attitude.
“I think without that, though, I don’t think I would’ve gotten where I am today, so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise.”
He may sound like a spotlight-seeker, but Smith is anything but a diva. According to his coaches, past and present, Smith’s loyalty and commitment are an anachronism by current standards.
“Austin is an incredibly loyal kid. He’s focused, he’s intense, but he’s not just about himself,” Baudo said. “We were a program at that point that … when we took over as a staff, the team was 2-30 the year prior. He visited the school, he liked the school, we liked him.”
Schools come calling
Then the 5-foot-5 adolescent shot up to a much more hockey-appropriate 5-11.
“Even though at the last minute he was found out by other schools — bigger schools, bigger-named schools — he stuck with us,” Baudo said, “and we were fortunate that he stuck with us. He, along with a few other guys obviously, really took our program to another level and has gotten us to where we have been able to sustain it even today.”
“He made his decision early in the process that this is where he wanted to be, and he never wavered from that,” said Vaughan, “even though I know he had other schools that were showing a lot of interest in him. He could have easily said, ‘I want to reconsider.'”
And Smith had bountiful opportunities to retract his verbal commitment to the Raiders. He was sought after by nine other ECAC programs, he said — all but Cornell and Dartmouth. New Hampshire was hot in pursuit. BC and Boston University inquired. When he went west, even more big-name D-I programs came calling.
“Denver, CC, you name it, a lot of teams tried to get me to decommit and come out their way,” he said, “but there was just something about this place that I really wanted to experience, and I stuck with my decision the whole way.”
In the end, Smith estimated that 25 to 30 schools made passes at him after he had already verballed to Colgate. Most approached him with scholarship offers, too, which matters to a kid from a solidly middle-class family. One of two sons of a fireman and a nurse, Smith has worked hard to earn his full ride in Hamilton.
“It was kind of a cultural shock coming up here. It’s been interesting. Especially where I’m from — a real modest, humble background — I mean, my parents don’t make much, and I’ve been thrown into a world of just lots of money,” Smith mused. “It’s a completely different lifestyle. The people are different. I’ve learned so much and adapted to so much, and culturally as much as anything I’ve kind of entered a new realm.”
It’s not a realm without allies, though. Smith has been fortunate to find one in his first-line center, Chris Wagner. The sophomore simply clicked with Smith last year, and Vaughan had no trouble at all imagining them together for the entirety of this campaign.
“We knew coming into this year that we’d have some depth, and that if we wanted to put together a top line, we needed to play together,” Smith said of his rapport with Wagner. “From Game 1, it’s been unbelievable, our chemistry. We basically begged the coaches to put us together. We’re best friends off the ice. I think [Vaughan] had the idea, but we really pushed him to kind of put it together. Obviously, it’s paid off.”
“They are like brothers,” Vaughan said. “They jab each other, just like you’d see brothers do. You can certainly see that it’s sincere chemistry there. They go out for dinner all the time, every drill in practice that combines two guys … they always find each other in line. They’re always going together. It’s been fun to see that. When two guys really want to play together and they make it work, it makes my job a lot easier.”
The tandem has combined to score 53 goals and 106 points this year, with the vast majority of the goals deriving from the other half’s playmaking abilities. The production has slowed a bit as the branches begin to bud in the Empire State — he has fallen under a goal-per-game pace for the first time all year — but Smith considers that par for the course after delivering such ostentatious performances all year long. After all, he plays against the opposition’s top lines and best defensive pairs game-in, game-out. Foes follow through on every check, and he draws every eyeball in the rink.
After his and his team’s disastrous 2010-11 season, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“[My junior year] was just the most miserable year of my life, where I had my [hip] surgeries, the team was just — it was one of those years where nothing went right. I really thought, it’s time to leave, I need to turn pro and start something new. I need a change.
“But I had a good conversation with Vaughaner about how I’d be a leader this year, about how I needed to come back and have an explosive year before I make that jump to gain confidence. My confidence was just kind of whatever after that junior season, and yeah, he couldn’t have been more right.”
What has made Smith so valuable is the fight that burns inside him, the one that propels him toward the net like a flaming arrow. It’s not quantifiable, like his strength or speed. It’s not obvious, like his playmaking vision or uncanny instincts.
That deep, personal inferno insures that he does not back off, and he does not let up. He’ll never be 6-foot-2. He’ll never be 230 pounds. He’ll never be an Ontario or Minnesota or Michigan or Alberta kid.
“That’s kind of the thing I’ve been fighting, and I’m sure I’ll hear more when I branch out to the next part of my career,” he said.
“Hopefully I can prove everyone wrong, like I have up to this point.”
That thing about him having no shot? He always has a shot. And he will make it.