tbl.commentator Lonnie Herman
From Tampa Bay Lightning Tryout & Conditioning Camp
Matt Smaby is sitting at his small metal locker, the one usually used by an Arena Football player with the Tampa Bay Storm. He has just finished his first workout of his first day as a professional hockey player with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even though he has been training and preparing for this day for several months, the sweat is dripping down his face as profusely as if he had dunked his head into one of the lakes his home state of Minnesota is famous for.
For Matt, the Lightning's 2nd round draft choice in 2003 (41st overall), this day marks the start of what he hopes turns into a long career in the NHL. The press clippings he earned as the captain of his University of North Dakota hockey squad are packed away; ancient history in the life of a 22 year old, no more relevant than his SAT scores or the grade he received in Algebra in high school. Starting now, he's judged by what he does on the ice, each time he steps on it. And someone is always watching in judgment. The team's chief scout, the general manager, the coaches; all of them had turned out this morning. Decisions will be made at the conclusion of this four-day Tryout & Conditioning Camp which will affect his career path, and Smaby knows that. He's flown into town alone, and he wants no distractions.
"This trip is all work and no play," Smaby explained. "It's the first step in a long process."
The long process ahead is a theme Smaby returns to again and again. It's a sense of perspective which he maintains. He doesn't expect too much too quickly, but he's hoping to make a great impression.
"This week is my first professional experience," Smaby said. "I hope to get acclimated with some of the people and learn the Lightning way of doing things."
In April, Smaby agreed to a three-year contract with the team, turning pro and foregoing
his last year of eligibility at UND. For the Lightning, it meant locking up an impressive package: a big (6-foot-5), mobile, hard-hitting character player who can skate like a forward.
For Matt, the signing meant even more.
"I was over the hump," Smaby explained. "I'd been working toward that for a good part of my life - it's a relief on one hand, but it energized me as well. It's a strong motivating factor."
A motivating factor? Turning pro after his junior year carries some extra weight.
"I know the expectations for me are a little bit higher than they might be for some others here," Smaby said. "I have a lot of work left to do this summer to prepare - but if I can give myself an opportunity I'll be happy. I know it's up to me to make it happen by the way I play at rookie camp and training camp in September."
As he cools down from the morning workout, in addition to tired and sweaty, he's feeling something else which pleases him - confident. He's seen some of his competition now and thinks he matches up well.
"I'm looking forward to getting on the ice with some of the players I've watched play," he said. "I want to prove myself against them, as well."
He means that, too. One of the intangibles you won't see when Smaby's on the ice is one of the important characteristics that drew the Lightning to him. He's an earnest, polite guy with a classic work ethic. His biggest influence on his life so far has been his father, and sharing the excitement of his first contract brought them even closer.
"Well, my dad and I stayed in close contact throughout the negotiations," Matt recalled. "Whenever I'd get a call from my agent, I'd call my dad and pass the information along. I really wanted him to feel like part of the process. We had some big moments when the contract was signed - and it still happens. I'll be sitting at home and just realize that I'm a professional hockey player - no more school, nothing else but hockey. I'm still getting used to it."
There is no lack of things for a young professional to get used to, and Smaby will be exposed to them all during the next few months. And whether he emerges from the September training camp as a member of the Lightning or with a roster spot on one of the minor league affiliates, he has one goal in mind.
"I want the people here at the Lightning to feel as if they did the right thing when they signed me."