Hunter Smith won’t soon forget the biggest moment of his first season of professional hockey.
And it’s not his first pro goal.
It’s his second-ever snipe … and seventh pro fight.
“That was pretty surprising, I guess,” Smith said. “I celebrated my second goal of the year. Don’t get to put my hands up too often and I look up the ice and a guy’s skating right at me. I’m going to remember that one for a bit. That is for sure the first time that anything like that has ever happened.”
Smith put a puck behind former Calgary Flames goaltender Leland Irving, his second and final goal of his first season, before immediately squaring off with Iowa Wild forward Kurtis Gabriel in a game on Mar. 18.
But there were many more goals, off the scoresheet, that Smith met as a rookie with the Stockton Heat of the American Hockey League.
“I thought I reached some goals,” said Smith, who turned pro in 2015-16 after finishing his Ontario Hockey League career last spring with a Memorial Cup title as a member of the Oshawa Generals.
“First year pro under my belt … it feels nice. It’s nice moving forward just getting the swing of things. Now I don’t have to worry about things getting in my head or being worried about it being my first year, being comfortable around the guys. It’s a pretty good year all in all.”
The same goes for fellow rookie Austin Carroll.
Carroll, who graduated from the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals after four seasons, also made his professional debut with Stockton.
And, like Smith, there were plenty of lessons along the way.
“I came in definitely with open eyes,” said Carroll, drafted in the seventh round (No. 184) in the 2014 NHL Draft. “I just wanted to learn a lot. It was a good year. It was good to get my first year pro under my belt. I learned a lot of things.
“How to be a pro. I had to grow up. With playing juniors, this is my first year living on my own completely. That was big. Cooking for myself … the simple things like that. And having to come to work every day, it’s a grind … just pushing through it and learning from the older guys.”
Carroll and Smith were two of four players to mark their first seasons of pro hockey in Stockton, joining forward Morgan Klimchuk and defenceman Oliver Kylington to comprise the rookie contingent.
And while Klimchuk followed a similar path to that of his junior counterparts in Smith and Carroll, Kylington had a few more obstacles to overcome.
The 18-year-old jumped into AHL action following life as a pro in Sweden.
“It was fun,” Kylington said. “It was nice to come over here to the (United) States and play hockey. I think this year has been fun. I’ve been learning a lot of new things. It’s been a good year for me, I think.
“On the ice it’s new teammates, new guys in the locker room, new faces,” said Kylington, who was named the Heat’s rookie of the year and earned a late season, single-game call-up with the Flames. “You need to get to know everybody and try to build a relationship with them. That’s been going good. I’ve been learning all the guys in the room, and getting new friends. That’s good.
“Off ice, living-wise, has been really good for me to know how to live by myself in a different country. I lived by myself in Sweden, but it’s totally different to live by yourself in another country. It was a lot of learning points this year. I appreciated it a lot to get this opportunity and learn and grow as a person.”
Ditto, suggested the fourth freshman.
And Klimchuk, like Smith, Carroll and Kylington, want to use a year rich with experience as a springboard to a sophomore season full of further success.
“Coming into the year you don’t really know what to expect, it being my first year pro,” said Klimchuk, a first round pick from 2013. “I can say I learned a lot. We had an awesome group of guys here and a great staff.
“I’m excited for a good summer. You know a lot of what you need to work on to be a good player in this league and to excel at this level. I’m going to take everything I learned and try to have a good summer.”