If the ultimate goal of the Blackhawks’ summer youth hockey programs is to learn to play the sport of hockey like the Blackhawks themselves, then rest assured parents: there is likely no better role model than forward Ben Smith, who dropped by West Meadows Ice Arena in Rolling Meadows on Tuesday to skate with the campers, sign some autographs and share his love of hockey.
It’s not simply that Smith is known to play the game “the right way” – two of his best, most elite skills have always been his drive and dedication to the game – but the 23-year-old embraces the other part of living in a hockey-crazy city like Chicago: He wants to be part of the community, and use his place in the local sports scene for good.
Whether it’s helping a group of grade-schoolers to become better hockey players or supporting the Chicago and Rockford communities, it seems that Smith rarely allows himself the opportunity to say “no.”
“It was something they instilled in me at Boston College; there’s a huge emphasis on going out and giving back in the community” Smith says of his alma mater, where he spent four years and helped lead the Eagles to an NCAA title in his senior season. "It’s something that I really enjoyed doing. I could be at home watching T.V. right now, but this is more interesting and fun for me here.”
It’s easy to believe him. On this particular day, Smith arrived early at the rink, took pictures and signed autographs for every kid at the camp (and some brothers and sisters who came to watch from the stands), then laced up his skates and hit the ice for drills. Not as an instructor though – he stood in line with the rest of the campers.
MORE FROM BEN'S DAY
Click here to browse photos of Ben Smith's day at the Blackhawks' youth hockey summer camp.
“It all starts here,” says Smith. “I remember times when players used to visit the youth camps that I skated at. It’s so important; it’s nice to be able to return the favor now that I’m older and still playing this game.”
“He’s so interactive with the kids,” says Blackhawks Director of Youth Hockey Annie Camins, who along with Eddie Olczyk leads the four week-long camps. “He’s lining up for all of the passing drills, he wants to play 3-on-3 with the kids in the camp. He’s so talkative with the kids; he cares about what they have to say.
"We have 300 kids this summer going through our hockey schools, and having Eddie, who was a Chicago kid and played on the Olympic team and in the NHL, and someone like Ben, who has those same values of hard work, character, and determination, definitely makes an impression.”
Even during the grind of the regular season, Smith manages to find time to give back as often as he can. While on AHL assignment in Rockford, Smith attended family reading nights at Rockford elementary schools and libraries, and helped with the IceHogs’ local adopt-a-school program and reading programs.
Smith’s greatest recent charitable endeavor, however, involved working with a young terminally-ill Blackhawks fan. During his visit with the 19-year-old fan, Jimmy Newcomer, last January, Smith found out that Newcomer was supposed to attend his first Blackhawks game in Chicago that month, but couldn’t go because of his illness. Smith volunteered to watch the game at the hospital with Jimmy, but when he was recalled to the Blackhawks, he managed to organize a Rockford team outing to visit the hospital in his stead.
Smith and the IceHogs later held a team event, which raised more than $10,000 for Newcomer’s medical expenses. Newcomer eventually found enough strength to attend an IceHogs game, courtesy of Smith. For his efforts, Smith was named the IceHogs’ nominee for AHL Man of the Year.
“It was a big honor for me, but I have to give a lot of credit to the staff there for giving me a lot of opportunities to get out and do some good," he says. “It was the staff giving me those chances; it’s a no-brainer for me, coming from B.C. I really do enjoy getting out into the community.”
Like any good role model, Smith has had, and continues to have, challenges which he must overcome. He missed the majority of the Blackhawks’ 2011 preseason dealing with a head injury, and his 2011-12 season ended early due to hernia and hip surgery in March. He’s still working on his recovery, but says that getting on the ice, even with kids more than a decade his junior, is a sign of his improving health.
“Being able to come out here and get on the ice is a good sign. I feel much better – by September I will be 100 percent,” Smith explains. “But today is all about going out there, having fun and hopefully putting smiles on their faces. It’s so important – it’s hopefully something the kids will remember like I do now as they grow up. “
If all goes right for Smith on the ice, he could start the 2012-13 season in Chicago with the Blackhawks, and his gritty style of play could mean he stays. If that were to happen, it would go a long way toward disproving the rule that nice guys finish last.