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FLAMES EXTRA - THE LONG ROAD TO CALGARY

There was some tough years in the desert that made a trade to hockey-mad city the ideal situation for Mike Smith

by AARON VICKERS @aavickers / calgaryflames.com

Vehicle packed.

Kids loaded.

Tunes cranked up.

Open road.

Cottage ahead.

Phone call.

"I had a carful of kids, lifejackets in the back…everything for the weekend," he starts.

"I had my boat out behind.

"I got the call, and the call lasted about 45 seconds, and I hung up the phone and was in shock."

Just like that. 

Arizona Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith became Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith, courtesy an exchange arranged by the general managers on both sides.

He knew it was coming.

But …

"I didn't really have any expectation or any inkling that it was going to happen until I was asked to waive my no-trade clause," he says. "At that point, I thought it could happen but I didn't believe it actually would. Once the call actually happened and they informed me I had been traded it was still a pretty shocking experience.

"Then, how do you tell a six-year-old that you had just been traded?

"All he's known for his last few years is Arizona Coyotes. Trying to explain to them why, and they don't really understand at that age of their lives, obviously.

"But once it settled in, we were really excited.

"Really excited."

The first call, from Coyotes GM John Chayka, was brief.

The second, from Flames GM Brad Treliving, lasted a little longer.

"There was a little more dialogue in that one," Smith smiles. "Brad was a big fan of mine in Arizona and I really respect what he's done throughout his career. I have a lot of respect for how he runs the ship and how he treats people and the respect he gives you is tremendous.

"I think when I got the call from Brad, I was over the moon and excited I was wanted and that he did everything he could to make it happen."

No secret was the struggle in the desert.

Arizona hadn't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five years, and had only played once beyond the regular season in Smith's tenure.

And that's just the on-ice issues.

"In Arizona things weren't going well," Smith admits. "When things don't go well for a consistent period, it's part of the business is things starting to change.

"With the rebuild in Arizona, we knew that was going to happen. You like to think it's not you that's going to be moved, but that's the way it works. You never know what's going to happen on the business side of it."

 

Off-ice issues were there, too.  

Smith, one of few veterans on the team, shouldered much of the weight of that.

"I think that just comes with the position," he says. "It comes with being around…not as long as Doaner, but being there for six years, there was always things coming up with the arena deal, ownership and the uncertainty of that.

"My first year I was there, there were no owners. It was run by the league.

"[Don Maloney] and Brad did an unbelievable job of even making us competitive. My first year, we were unowned, made the conference finals. It's probably one of the highest points of my career in Arizona.

"After that it didn't go as planned, but you just learn to accept it, deal with it."

As one of the faces of the team, Smith had to.

"You could hear in his interviews last year…he was getting frustrated," Flames assistant general manager Craig Conroy says. "He was front-and-center every night. He was the one doing the talking, him and a few of the other veteran guys.

"You could see there was frustration.

"It was just time for him. He loved his time there, great teammates…but it was a time when you just needed, like a lot of guys, to move on."

The Flames, too, were at the point of moving on. 

Entering the season with a pair of pending unrestricted free agents in net allowed the Flames to take their goaltending in another direction.

Again.

"Two goalies were on one-year deals," details Conroy. "Right from the start of the year we're watching. You're hoping (Brian) Elliott or (Chad) Johnson is maybe going to show us they're the guy.

"I think they had really good stretches. Both goalies played really well at times. But the consistency we were looking for and just the confidence…the way it ended in the playoffs…I thought Elliott was fine but there were some goals we'd all like back. Those were the saves we needed and he didn't do it.

"It really was an all-year process going through, watching guys, identifying who might be available and out there. We had a ton of names and you're watching and it really felt like Smith was the name that kept coming up.

"Brad had the most familiarity with him.

"It just sounded like it was going to be a good fit.

"It all came together."

Michael Stone remembers it coming together.

Stone, himself a pending unrestricted free agent after spending the final few months of the season in Flames silks, didn't hesitate to reach out.

"Right away," he points out.

"There were rumblings that things were going to not be the same (in Arizona). Things were changing. I had an idea that there was going to be some movement, and then when I saw Smitty here, I mean, it was more of a 'congratulations' to him.

"His wife has some family nearby in Canmore. I told him it would be a real good situation for him.

"And I told him I was excited to be teammates again, if that was going to be the case for me."

It was.

Smith and Stone, together for each of their six seasons with Arizona, were together again in Calgary with Stone signing up with the Flames a couple week after Smith's acquisition.

Stone's seen it all in Smith.

"I saw him at his best in that playoff run," Stone says. "He was the reason we won the way we did. That series against the Blackhawks he was unbelievable. I think he's the player you can rely on to be that good because he's so competitive. That's how he is as a person, no matter what you're doing.  

"I think you see that in everything he does."

The playoff series of anecdote, a six-game win at the expense of the Chicago Blackhawks, gave way to a five-game conquest of the Nashville Predators. The Coyotes eventually bowed to the Los Angeles Kings, eventual Cup champions, in the Conference Final.

Smith's participation in the playoffs came with some late regular-season heroics.

In turn, he ended Glen Gulutzan's bid to try.

And, temporarily, a role as a head coach in the NHL.

"That was the joke," Gulutzan suggests. "I joked with him like I've joked with a couple other guys.

"He was really the one…the year I was in Dallas and he was in Phoenix…it was Dallas-Phoenix fighting for the last spot. He made 43 saves or 48 saves in a shutout against Columbus. My first thing was, 'Thanks a lot…glad to have you, but I might still be in Dallas if you weren't playing for Phoenix.'"

Smith, it turns out, ended that April 3, 2012 game with a 54-save shutout.  

It helped put the Coyotes into the playoffs, and the Dallas Stars, then Gulutzan's team, out.

Gulutzan was let go after the following season.

Smith remembers the joking reminder.

"I do. I do remember that," he admits.

"I've played some decent hockey against the Stars. For the most part, they had my number in their building. Gully…it was great to hear from both those guys to give you some confidence going into the season and to know they're behind you. 

"Obviously it was a good introduction to the Calgary Flames organization."

The introductions came quickly.

Playing didn't.

Patience, instead, followed.

"It was a long wait between getting traded and then arriving here for the start of camp. But there was a lot of stuff that happened between that, that not an athlete would recognize," he says.

"People get moved with their jobs and everyone's probably been moved at some point in their life, where they're like, 'we have to pack and have four kids and a dog and cars' and there's logistics with houses in different areas and finding a place to rent or to buy, an area to pick, coming to a new city we're not that familiar with.

"I think initially we were really excited about the trade, and then it got to the point where we couldn't find a house…it was a couple weeks before we were moving and we still didn't have a house and had four kids, two starting a new school. The logistics of moving a big family was interesting, and a bit stressful.

"But it's all settled down now. We're all comfortable. It's been a great start so far."

Settled, after a bit of a shock no doubt.

Sunny summers are, after all, giving way to frigid falls.

A stiff nine degrees Celsius in Calgary for Smith on the day of his latest start. 

A balmy 26 in Glendale.

But temperature doesn't dictate happiness.

"I think his family is excited to be here," attests Stone, who made his move from sunshine to the dead of winter last March.

"His wife has some family close by. She was a big skier and what not. I think that'll be cool, for her and their kids. It'll be the first time they'll have a rink in the backyard, stuff like that. It's just different. I think everybody is excited for that.

"Me, I wasn't here through a lot of the winter last year…I didn't get here until February. I know I'm excited to have the seasons again.

 "It's another change. It's nice."

 That change, on one level or another, might be serving as a bit of a surprise to Smith.

 He's been on the delivery end of some surprises, though, too.

 As much as a 35-year-old goaltender is a known quantity, sometimes he isn't.

"What surprises me the most…and it's like some of the other guys that I've had, the high-end goalies I've had or got to work with like Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller, Canadian Olympic goalie and US Olympic goalie…is the work ethic," Gulutzan details.

"You wouldn't think that about those goalies, but just how hard they work day-in, day-out, how competitive they are and how hard they work. That's the thing that sticks out to me. It's good to have a guy like that.  

"He's competitive and works hard.

 "You see why those guys are so good."

 Conroy has.

 "He's extremely competitive," he says.

"In practice? Competitive.

"In games? Competitive.

"He wants to play every night, and I love that in him that he is that competitive. You watch from the outside and think he's a good goalie, but it's that competitiveness…playing with Patrick Roy, Grant Fuhr, Kipper was a competitor in his own quiet way.

"He wants to play every night. He wants to be in the pressure situations. That's what you want. It breeds confidence.

"That personality is great for the team.

"So far, he's been our MVP. He's been excellent."

The early returns attest.

Smith has, through the opening eight games of the season, served as their best player.

Their Hart Trophy nominee.

Their Ted Lindsay candidate. 

The on-ice success certainly has Smith smiling.

But it's not the only reason. Not by a long shot.

It's his new road, all the result of one phone call.

"It feels great," Smith says.

"I think the biggest thing is this team, the players on this team are obviously great players, but they're great people. It's fun to come to the rink. It's been an easy transition to a new team. I've done it before. It usually takes some time to get acquainted to new teammates, but it's been the easiest one for me.

"Through the whole organization, there's great people wherever you go.

"Albertans are so friendly. I've probably had five or 10 neighbours come over since I've moved in.

"We've had some early success and I just want to keep it going."

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