A Face in the Crowd
Colgate's Smith Leads the Nation in Goals
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last season could not have been any worse for Colgate, or for Austin Smith. Picked to finish near the top of the ECAC, Colgate finished dead last, without a league win until February. Smith, coming off two strong seasons, saw his goal total plummet into single digits. A pair of series victories in the ECAC Tournament did a little to soften the blow, but not much.
As the old adage says, however, sometimes it takes going a step back to go two steps forward. In Colgate's case, perhaps it's been three.
The Raiders are near the top of the ECAC this year, and Smith — as of the time of writing — was leading the nation in goal scoring. The pair's fortunes are clearly intertwined.
"We didn't have much chemistry (last year)," Smith said. "This year, I have had two exceptional linemates. We've clicked and bonded well. Hopefully we can replicate this and have an even better second half."
Those linemates are sophomore Chris Wagner ("We're best friends off the ice," Smith said), and Joe Wilson, a freshman that ignites the other two.
"He's an unsung hero. He has so much energy," Smith said of Wilson, a sentiment his coach echoes.
"Joey is quiet, but he's a sponge, and I think he's enjoying the heck out of playing with those guys," Colgate coach Don Vaughan said. "His acceleration — he can really skate. He'll hound pucks down and force turnovers, and then Chris gets it and feeds it to Austin."
Smith is also healthy for the first time in a few years. Two seasons ago, he realized he needed surgery for a torn labrum in both hips, an injury that is becoming increasingly prevalent in hockey players (six Colgate players alone have had the surgery in the last four years). But he only took care of one, and played through last season knowing he'd need surgery to the other hip this past offseason.
Smith chose to play through it last year instead of taking a medical redshirt.
"I didn't want to set myself back," Smith said, about forgoing the surgery. "I had a really good sophomore year and played through it. So I knew that it was possible to play through it. I couldn't really imagine sitting out. I'm looking forward to a pro career, and fortunately, knock on wood, it's been a big senior year and that's what I was looking for. It's kind of like a contract year."
The effects were sore hips, trouble squatting, and a sharp pain that would move to the groin area.
But Smith believes he's better for the adversity.
"Maybe I need that. I had that big step in the road," Smith said. "I was in pain most of the year and things weren't going well. I could've packed it in and had surgery. But I learned a lot. I learned focus and dedication and things that will really help me in my pro career."
But it wasn't just the injury. Smith had to adjust to new linemates, after having played with an All-American like David McIntyre in years past. Smith said, playing with a player like McIntyre, he was passing all the time, trying to set him up. Most of the time, those passes paid off.
But last year, those same passes, without McIntyre, weren't leading anywhere. His troubles mirrored the team's.
"Initially it was (the injury)," Vaughan said. "When your confidence starts to wane, it builds upon itself. Whereas, if he was healthy and got off to a better start ... he was also a victim of what was going on collectively."
As a result, though, Smith finally learned what his coach has been preaching for years — shoot more.
"I have a great shot, I know that, but something in my brain says, 'Make that pass over two sticks,'" Smith said.
"I learned I've got to get the puck to the net, take opportunities when you get them. This year I've scored when before I would've made the extra pass. More than anything, I've been determined and focused on that part of the game — in practice too, just every day, not just swiping one at the goalie and going through the motions. I'm trying to score."
Colgate now is moving up the polls and the ECAC standings.
"Getting off to a good start was important," Vaughan said. "The guys will buy in better ... we wanted to be more aggressive, more North-South, and hound all areas of the rink. We did a lot of video work, going back to last year. We were reinforcing that game plan through the use of video. We wanted to show only the positive plays in our video sessions."
Smith might have a common name, but his path to college hockey is uncommon — through Dallas, Texas. On the other hand, it's becoming an increasingly popular avenue for athletes from that area. Much of the thanks for that has to come from the Dallas Stars, whose move there and success fostered an enormous upswing in hockey interest among local youth.
"It's completely what got me into hockey," Smith said. "Back then, there was 250 kids in the Metroplex (the Dallas-Fort Worth area) that played. Now there's 50,000 or more."
David McKee, a former Cornell goaltender (2003-06) and Hobey Baker Award finalist, was among the first from Texas to play college hockey. McKee happens to have grown up on the same street as Smith.
Others that Smith grew up with, including Locke Jillson and Keir Ross, who both went to Cornell, similarly were going to play NCAA hockey.
But it was his mom that Smith was inspired by the most.
"When I went to Colgate, I loved the campus," Smith said. "My mom influenced me, with the academics. She really wanted that aspect as well. She was probably as much of an influence as anything. And I didn't have that exposure to Western schools yet. ... I had a good relationship with Vaughan early, and the team was good at the time."
To top it all off, the hometown Stars selected Smith in the NHL Draft. Smith said he'd spoken to the Islanders, Boston and a few other teams, but had no idea Dallas was going to select him.
"The joke is that they picked me for a publicity stunt," Smith said. "But they said, 'We've got a lot of college prospects,' and they were interested. They keep a pretty close eye. ... They seem genuinely interested. If I have a really good year, technically (I can be) a free agent, but I would love to play back home. That would be unbelievable.
"I've wondered about what if I went to a Denver or another big school, but I'm going to get an incredible degree, I've played first or second line since my first year, logged 25 minutes (a game), and got better every day through a good coach. So you have to look at some of the intangibles."
Vaughan believes the sky is the limit for Smith the rest of the season.
"The mental part, keeping his emotions in check, even when things aren't going well. He's getting better at it," Vaughan said.