Smith: Guard Dog in the desert
Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith is enjoying a career year in Phoenix. (BEN NELMS/Reuters file photo)
Sean Burke, former NHL netminder and current goalie coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, sniggers at the memory of Bob Sauve, his first big-league goalkeeping partner.
The topic is fitness, something that meant as much to Sauve as elocution did to Elmer Fudd.
"He was a bit of a throwback," Burke recalled of his 1987 New Jersey Devils teammate, pointing out that goalies in Sauve's era and before were generally regarded as quirky chaps who were rarely confused with the team's best athlete. "Bob still smoked," he added. "Fitness and nutrition were not at the forefront of his mind.
"Smitty, on the other hand," the puck-stop teacher boasted on prize pupil Mike Smith, the gifted guardian of the Coyote cage, "is at the forefront of the new breed of goalie: Great shape year-round, athletic, plays the puck well, mentally sharp, strong hockey sense."
Prime playing condition is paramount in a business already brimming with wealthy, pampered pucksters, none of whom is anxious to return to life in the so-called bus leagues. "The money available to players today has raised the level of everything," said Burke.
Fitness and steady shot-blocking were crucial components of Smith's splendid season, a campaign in which he ranked among the leaders in several goaltending categories.
But there was another reason as well, a firm pre-season commitment from the club. "There was a trust factor involved," Burke acknowedged. "Mike had to know that we believed in him and that he was going to play, night in, night out."
Reached at his rented hacienda in North Scottsdale, 30 minutes from the Coyotes' den in Glendale, the native of Verona (just north of Kingston) called the club's pre-season vote of confidence a "huge reason" behind his success this year. "It makes you a better player," he said.
"I had a few bad games where I thought - I know - I didn't deserve to start the next game," Smith continued. "But Burkie took me aside and said that's what No. 1 goalies do - they get right back in there."
The company's pledge was tested early. In the team's season opener against San Jose, six Shark snipers solved Smith in the first 40 minutes.
"We stuck with him," Burke remembered, "and from that third period through to the end of our final game, Smitty's been outstanding."
Statistics back up that lofty assessment. Smith posted career-best numbers this year: 38 wins (fourth in league), eight shutouts (third), .930 save percentage (third), 2.21 goals-against average (eighth), 3,903 minutes (fifth).
Moreover he spearheaded the desert doggies to a division crown, the first in franchise history, not to mention home-ice advantage in a post-season saw-off that begins Thursday in Phoenix against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It's been a fun ride," Smith said of his break-out season.
He could just as easily be referring to his home life, save for the past tense. Last summer he and wife, Brigitte Acton, the two-time Canadian Olympic skier, celebrated the birth of their first child, Aksel. ("Can you believe it?" Pops exclaimed. "He's nine months old already!")
Just as implausible has been the goaler's sudden ascent to stardom. This is, after all, the same fellow whose patience and perseverance have been repeatedly put to the test, in junior, in the minors, and most certainly in the NHL. Last year the Tampa Bay Lightning dispatched him to the minors, then recalled him before finally waiving him a second time.
Then there was the concussion that cost him a third of the 2008-09 season and the start of the next one. Six months after he was sidelined, Smith, convalescing at home on Howes Lake, admitted he was still seeing "black dots"- a most hazardous side-effect for a guy who's paid to find just one black dot.
An unchanging man of incalculable resolve, Smith signed with Phoenix as an unrestricted free agent. He was reunited with old coach Dave Tippett at a handsome $2 million US a season.
"I've gone through tough times but I wouldn't trade any of them," remarked the youngest of Ron and Ingrid Smith's two sons. "I've learned something from each one, learned a lot about myself."
Smith is the Coyotes' nominee for the Masterson Trophy, which salutes perseverance and dedication to hockey. Burke, for one, feels his student is worthy of additional NHL hardware, if not the Hart (a long shot), then surely the Vezina (a legitimate candidate). Then, maybe, a couple of months down the road, who knows? A share in ol' Stanley.
"We have a goalie who, in my mind, is the Vezina Trophy winner," trumpeted Burke. "Mike's played a ton of minutes, stands among the statistical leaders and, more importantly, played his best hockey down the stretch when it mattered most."
Indeed, Smith was selected one of the NHL three stars in the final week of the regular season. He went 3-0 with a microscopic 0.67 GAA and a ridiculous .982 save percentage. For good measure, his 54 stops in a 2-0 blanking of St. Louis last week bettered by one the old league mark for most saves in a shutout (Craig Anderson, Florida, 2008).
Heady stuff for a goalie who, having turned 30 last month, may just be entering his prime.
Speaking of birthdays, Smith's quiet 30th celebration featured a few familiar faces from home.
"My wife organized it so that two old friends and their wives came down from Verona," Smith said of the clandestine clambake.
"I came home, saw balloons everywhere, then saw two of them on my couch. Funny thing was I'd just talked to them days earlier, asking them if they were coming down to visit. They said probably not this year.
"I was blown away," added the chiselled 6-foot-3 goalkeeper, who blew away more than a few foes during his fun ride.
Fun, fantastic and far from finished.