Becoming the best hockey goaltender one can be requires more than the nurturing of physical abilities; it takes strong character, mental toughness and a proper attitude. Just like technique and strength, attitude and approach are areas that can be improved. The aim of this essay is to provide an understanding of what type of mind-set is necessary for success. The story of Mike Smith demonstrates the importance of embracing proper attitude.
Here is his tale:
To say that Mike Smith’s minor hockey career was underwhelming is to be complimentary. Those in hockey had little confidence in his goaltending. I remember, when Mike was 17, the coach on his JR A team had zero faith in him. He told everybody that “Smitty” wasn’t very good.
Nevertheless, Mike managed to get a spot on the local OHL squad – his hometown Kingston Frontenacs. The team needed a back-up and choosing “Smitty” meant that it could save on the cost of billeting an out-of-towner. The other reason he made the team was that the coach had so much confidence in his first-string goalie, Andrew Raycroft, that giving Smith the back-up job was not a big risk.
Mike had a tough year, playing in a mere eight games out of roughly seventy. The only reason he even played that much was because “Rayzor” sprained his ankle towards the end of the season. In fact, the joke circulating the OHL, was that Smith’s coach did not even have the confidence to start him in practice!
The coach of the Frontenacs just didn’t feel confident putting Mike in the net; and perhaps it would be tough to blame him. Mike struggled to stop the puck even in practice. Anything shot to the five-hole or glove was virtually a guaranteed goal. Still he kept working every day to get better. He was usually the first on the ice and last off.
If anyone had made the statement that Smith would one day play in the NHL, laughter would have ensued. The only people who thought he could be a National Hockey League player were his agent and myself (and his parents of course). If anyone had the excuse to be discouraged and to give up, it was Mike Smith. He pushed on.
Mike chose to use the lack of faith others had in him as motivation – he was determined to prove everyone wrong. He believed he would play in the NHL. This type of determination is what enabled him to keep improving his game. Raycroft signed with the Boston Bruins and Mike worked ferociously in the gym and trained at the goalie school all summer to be ready for the next season. Smith arrived at training camp ready to assume the starting job – a role that had eluded him at every level up to that point in his career.
The Frontenac’s coach had other plans. He had so little faith in Smith’s ability that he drafted a star goalie from Slovakia and brought him over to Kingston to be the starter. Once again Mike was faced with being a back-up. After much persuasion by Smith’s agent and myself, another team in the league took a chance and traded for Mike. For the first time in his life, at the age of eighteen, Mike Smith was given the chance to be a first-string goalkeeper; his patience and perseverance were finally beginning to bear fruit.
On the first shot of the first game with his new team, Mike let in a long shot from the blueline with no traffic obstructing his view. It was a brutal start and one that may have caused most others in a similar situation to lose faith. Not Mike! He had been working hard to improve weaknesses in his game – both physical and mental. He called upon everything he had learned, dug down deep, kept his composure, re-grouped after the goal and went on to complete an average performance in a 6-4 victory for his team. It was not a great performance, but it was something to build on. Had it not been for his strong will, he could have gotten down after the first goal and the match likely would have gone from bad to worse resulting in a death knell to his confidence.
Mike improved steadily throughout the season. The experience was invaluable, but he still had not totally turned the corner to becoming a decent goaltender. Although much improved, he still had difficulty making glove saves or stopping shots between the legs. He had to opt out of the NHL draft because his chances of being drafted were slim.
Something happens when one does not give up, keeps working hard and perseveres – one gets better. Mike trained as hard as ever over the summer. He had always moved well, but now he had learned to track and stop pucks shot to anywhere in the net, including to his glove and five-hole. He added a puck-playing dimension to his game as well. By the end of the season Mike ranked in the top three goalies in the OHL: the other two being future NHLers, Ray Emory and Peter Budaj.
Still, respect was hard to come by. The Dallas Stars chose him towards the end of the NHL draft in the fifth round while they drafted another goalie in the first round – Jason Bacashua. Basically the Stars were saying that “Smitty” was a very long shot and perhaps someday, on an outside chance, he might be good enough to play in the NHL, but probably not. The contract offered at the time was reflective of this. He took it as a slap in the face and was determined to prove that he was a top prospect. As usual, Mike utilized the lack of faith everyone showed in him as motivation.
He arrived at training camp after a customary summer of grueling hard work, with one goal in mind, to be the best goalie in camp. He achieved just that. Not only was he much better than Dallas’ first rounder, he was the best goalie in camp, period. He even outperformed the Stars’ first-stringer Marty Turco. So good was Smith that Dallas played him in two exhibition games and rewarded him with a good entry-level contract – better than the one they had proposed to him earlier.
Just when he thought he had finally earned some respect, the Stars shipped him, not to their first minor league team in the AHL, but to their second tier squad in the East Coast Hockey League. Jason Bacashua was given the job in the AHL. Instead of sulking and complaining, Mike went down to the East Coast and set about to work his way up the ladder. He knew that he could be better than all the other prospects in the organization – he just had to prove it. His desire to succeed and confidence in his abilities was remarkable.
In his first professional game, Mike recorded a shutout and scored a goal in a 2-0 victory – the only professional goalie to achieve such a feat. He went on to complete a terrific season. The next year, he was rewarded a spot on the AHL team. “Smitty” then went on to outplay the goalie who had been chosen five rounds ahead of him. After completing three seasons apprenticing in the AHL, earning a Goalie of the Month award and helping propel a weak team into the playoffs, Mike displaced Bacashua on the depth chart and was given the opportunity to live every hockey player’s dream – to play in the NHL.
Mike earned a shutout in his first NHL game, the only Dallas Stars’ goalie to ever do so. Fast-forward, after fourteen seasons in the league, Smith has been a perennial starting goaltender, a Team Canada Olympic Gold Medalist, a World Hockey Championship winner and a NHL AllStar.
His is a story of perseverance, of never giving up, never giving in. He was an underdog in the truest sense. No one thought he had a chance to make it as far as he did. He was written off a long time ago. There were many goalies drafted ahead of Mike Smith who have never played a game in the NHL. Many who were considered top prospects, such as the Slovakian goalie who ran Smith off his hometown team, have never lived up to their potential.
We all possess strengths and weaknesses. However, many of us let our shortcomings get the better of us. Mike’s strengths were his size and athleticism. His weakness was his inability to stop the puck – kind of a problem for someone who wants to play goal. Although often frustrated and discouraged, he remained positive and never stopped working hard. After battling for many years, he finally put all the pieces together and his dedication was rewarded.
Mike Smith is the greatest goaltender I have coached and I have coached some big name goaltenders. I say this, not because he is the most talented, but because he has done more with his natural ability than any one else I have ever come across. Talent and potential in a player is great, but passion, heart and determination can be far better precursors to success. Just ask Mike Smith.