By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – Enrico Blasi was disappointed when current Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith chose to play hockey at the University of Wisconsin instead of Miami.
But the relationship the RedHawks’ coach built with the Smith family paid dividends when the youngest brother – Reilly – picked his college.
The Mimico, Ontario, native decided to come to Miami instead of following his older brother, and he has been terrorizing opponents’ goalies since.
“When the brother chose to go to Wisconsin it was pretty disappointing for all of us,” Blasi said. “But we had an opportunity to get Reilly and we were obviously extremely excited that he chose Miami, and he’s developed into not only a pretty good player but a very mature young man off and on the ice.”
Smith played in a bantam tournament here and fell in love with the school and the city.
“It was really everything,” Smith said. “I love the culture, I love the fan base, I love the atmosphere that fuels the hockey team.”
Mimico is a small Toronto suburb that is the hometown of Brendan Shanahan, and Smith’s house is two blocks from where current Blackhawks forward Dave Bolland grew up.
Smith learned to skate by age four, and he began playing organized hockey shortly after. His father made the decision that he would play hockey his first year, but it was Smith’s choice each subsequent season.
Smith grew up surrounded by athletes. His oldest brother, Rory, played pro hockey briefly before pursuing a career in the National Lacrosse League. He currently plays for the Colorado Mammoth and was named to this season’s West All-Star Team, leading the NLL in forced turnovers.
Their father, Lester, was a gifted basketball player who was the captain of his college team.
Reilly also considered a career in lacrosse, and his first season of juniors at St. Michael’s may have pushed him further in that direction. He was scratched for all but 13 games, and he finished with two goals and seven assists.
However, that season holds special meaning for Smith. All three Smith boys played for St. Michael’s, but 2007-08 was the only time Reilly was teammates with one of his brothers, as he joined Rory for that campaign.
“That was great being able to play with one of (my brothers) because I’ve never played in an organized league with them before,” Smith said. “With it being my first year in the league and him being a veteran in the league really helped the transition for me.”
Smith hit his offensive stride the following season, notching 27 goals and 48 assists in 49 games for St. Michael’s in 2008-09, and he was drafted in the third round by the Dallas Stars, a team he rooted for growing up, the following summer.
In a move that bucked traditional Ontario thinking, Smith chose the U.S. college route over Canadian junior hockey.
“If I went major junior they’d probably work on just the offensive aspects (of my game),” Smith said. “That’s one reason why I wanted to come to college and more specifically Miami because of the style of game that we play.”
Wisconsin was a school Smith strongly considered, but he would not have been able to join the team right away and Miami had a spot open for him immediately.
“(Wisconsin) was one of the front runners in my decision to go the college route,” Smith said. “I was recruited pretty heavily by Wisconsin, and talking to my brother, he didn’t think he was going to stay all four years there, and I think they only had a spot open for 2010. So if I was going to go there I wouldn’t have been able to play with him. And I wanted to come to Miami anyway, so it worked out perfectly I think.”
Smith came to Miami in the fall of 2009, just months after the RedHawks’ loss to Boston University in the national championship game.
“The expectations were through the roof,” Smith said. “Even though (Miami) lost in that championship game, it probably worked out for the better in the last few years because it’s given us a constant drive to work for something, with that one goal that we haven’t reached.”
Once in Oxford, Smith met fellow Canadian forward Curtis McKenzie, who was also a freshman Stars’ draftee.
“It was pretty instant chemistry that we had with each other,” McKenzie said. “Right away we became really good friends, so it worked out well.”
The two had never met in person, but they have been inseparable since.
“It’s really funny because when people meet us on campus, especially our freshman year, they were just baffled that we didn’t know each other coming in because it’s like we’ve been childhood friends since we were four or five,” Smith said.
As a freshman, it took Smith 10 games to find the net, but he scored twice in the series finale at Michigan on Nov. 7, 2009, as Miami completed the first sweep of the Wolverines in Yost Arena by any team in eight seasons.
Smith finished his rookie season with eight goals and 12 assists.
As with his juniors career, Smith’s game took a huge upturn in his second season with the RedHawks.
Paired on a line with eventual Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele, Smith scored seven goals in his first seven games of 2010-11.
“Definitely having Miele having a Hobey Baker season with 71 points, that helps a lot,” Smith said. “A lot was just confidence. First year it was definitely a big transition from playing in juniors, which is a way more offensive-tailored game, to coming here and learning the defensive side of the game. So there was a learning curve my first couple of months.”
He caught fire at playoff time, rolling up four goals and six assists in five postseason games, earning a spot on the CCHA’s all-tournament team for his two-goal, four-assist performance in two games in Detroit, helping Miami capture its first-ever Mason Cup.
Smith finished his sophomore season with a team-high 28 goals, and he added 26 assists. His 54 points would have been the most of any RedHawk since Randy Robitaille’s 61-point campaign in 1996-97, but instead he ended up third on the team to Miele (71) and Carter Camper (57).
“It’s been unbelievable to watch, the player (Smith’s) become,” McKenzie said. “You could even see glimpses his freshman year of how good of a player he was going to be.”
With three of Miami’s top forwards from 2010-11 gone, there was speculation Smith’s scoring could suffer this season. But he was paired with freshman center Austin Czarnik, and in their first game together Smith recorded a hat trick and an assist while Czarnik scored the other goal in a 4-3 win at Colgate.
Smith currently leads the CCHA in goals with 26, and he is second in the nation only to Colgate’s Austin Smith (no relation, but also a Stars draftee), who has 34.
Not coincidentally, Czarnik leads Miami in assists (20) and is tied for the team lead in plus-minus (plus-19).
“They told me when I came in that I was going to play with (Smith), so that was a big honor,” Czarnik said. “I’d heard so much about him when I was coming in. It’s unbelievable what he can do with the puck.”
In the second half of the season, fellow frosh Jimmy Mullin joined the duo at right wing, creating a nearly unstoppable top line.
“It makes my life easier when he gets open and when he scores it makes everybody look good, and he makes us look good at the same time, so it’s a give-and-take relationship,” Mullin said.
Czarnik also said his transition to the collegiate game has been significantly facilitated by playing on a line with Smith.
“I think it’s a lot easier, having a player like him take you under his wing the first half of the year,” Czarnik said. “I’m able to now make plays because (opponents) go to him more (defensively), so it works out great for both of us – and Jimmy Mullin.”
Czarnik and Smith are also the team’s top penalty killing pair, and their aggressive style has given opponents fits. They have also combined for three shorthanded goals, including a Czarnik breakaway goal at Ohio State on Feb. 25 when Smith fired a perfect outlet pass to Czarnik at the Buckeyes’ blue line.
And Czarnik has returned the favor several times this season. In the first game of that series in Oxford, Czarnik hit Smith with a feed from the corner boards and Smith scored off the one-timer from the faceoff circle.
“He’s able to get open, he’s able to get to the spots where the puck’s going to be and all I have to do is look for him and he’s in the high slot every single time I look there,” Czarnik said. “That’s what makes him special – he’s able to get to the open areas and bury the puck.”
The three are also good friends. During a moment of down time during practice, Smith came over and lightly boarded Czarnik as he was working on his full-ice shot.
Czarnik walked by as Smith was talking about him, and Smith turned his head to make sure Czarnik could hear him say that Mullin was a faster skater than Czarnik.
“We work really well together and they’re just awesome players to play with,” Mullin said. “We get along very well on and off the ice, so I think when it clicks off the ice, on the ice comes kind of easy. Playing with Smith is obviously a privilege and it’s lot of fun.”
Said Smith: “I couldn’t have asked for two better players to play with. Both great kids, and they’ve always got a smile when they come to the rink.”
McKenzie knows Smith better than anyone on the team, having been his roommate for three seasons, and he is well aware of Smith’s playful side.
“He’s a goofy guy, and a really laid back guy,” McKenzie said. “That’s why I get along with him really well I think, because he’s easy to be around.”
McKenzie did not have anything terribly incriminating to say about his fellow countryman, but he is annoyed by one of Smith’s traits.
“He’s one of the biggest lover boys I know with his girlfriend,” McKenzie said. “It’s quite disgusting actually.”
While Smith has an easygoing personality, he has certainly earned the respect of his coach and teammates. Blasi promoted Smith to co-captain mid season, and he explained why Smith warranted captaincy.
“His demeanor off the
ice, his demeanor on the ice, the way he approaches every day,” Blasi said. “It was something that was earned and well deserved and I think he’s done a real good job of adding to Will (Weber) and adding to Hirsch (Alden Hirschfeld) in the leadership department.”
In three years at Miami, Smith has vaulted an impressive list of former players on the school’s all-time statistical leader boards.
Despite having another year of eligibility, Smith is tied for second in career game-winning goals with Andy Miele at 12, and he recently tied Tim Leahy for the most GWG’s in a season with eight.
Smith is just the third player in school history to score at least 25 goals in consecutive seasons. Ryan Jones and Rick Kuraly have also accomplished that feat.
“Coming in here I had a great opportunity that the coaching staff gave me, playing with some of the best players I’ve ever watched, not just played with,” Smith said. “But they’ve given me opportunity after opportunity to play with the best players, so I think it’s more a credit to them and that they’ve been able to tailor their games to fit mine.”
While Smith’s offensive prowess is evident, he said he came to Miami to develop other aspects of his game, such as defense and physicality.
His penalty killing ability has been documented, and Smith weighed just 160 pounds entering his freshman season, but he has bulked up to 185 and has more success battling in corners than he did two years ago.
“I am very proud of how the other aspects of my game have come along,” Smith said.
So is Blasi.
“Well you know the old saying good defense leads to good offense,” Blasi said. “You still have to work hard, you still have to play all three zones, and he’s learned to play all three zones. The fact that he’s quick and he’s got a good stick, those are all things that add to his ability to play in all three zones and be effective in all three zones.”
Blasi also explained why Smith has developed chemistry with everyone he has played with so quickly.
“It’s not hard to play with Reilly, you just get open and he’ll find you and he’ll get open and you find him,” Blasi said. “We’ve tried to put him with guys that have a similar mentality that he has and it’s worked out so far.”
After this season, Smith faces the difficult choice of whether to remain at Miami for his senior year and earn a degree or pursue his dream of playing professional hockey in the Stars’ organization.
Three Miamians – Jeff Zatkoff, Alec Martinez and Tommy Wingels – have forgone their final year of eligibility in the past five years.
Brendan Smith left Wisconsin after his junior year.
“It’s a really hard decision, and that’s always been my plan since I came to campus was to get my degree,” Smith said. “Just see how the season plays out, I’m really not leaning either way right now.”
Having a pair of super skilled linemates to return to in 2012-13 is a major factor in his decision, Smith said.
“Being able to play with those guys and already having the chemistry is just going to further our growth, so that’s definitely a big positive in thinking about staying,” Smith said.
Whether he returns or not, Smith is sure that coming to Miami was the right decision for him, as both a hockey player and a person.
“The Miami experience has been absolutely phenomenal,” Smith said. “This whole culture is just built around success and building yourself as a person and not just as a hockey player. I can’t imagine being somewhere else – (Miami) has helped me mature and grow in a better sense, so hopefully there’s still another year left here – we’ll see – but everything that’s happened has been absolutely phenomenal and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”