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The Man Behind the (New) Mask

by Erin Chenderlin / Tampa Bay Lightning
Mike Smith with Vincent Lecavalier
You can tell a lot about a goalie from the mask he wears. Hobbies, passions and team colors are normal representations. So seeing newly acquired Tampa Bay goaltender Mike Smith in a Lightning jersey but sporting a green and gold mask, complete with country music megastar Garth Brooks, stars and lassos seemed a bit strange. His pads and goalie stick were also the Dallas Stars green and gold.

No more.

Less than a month into his Lightning debut, Smith officially looks the part. His leg pads are a bright Lightning blue and his new mask sports a calming scene of Tampa Bay. Or does it?

Like the man himself, the mask has two personalities. The right side shows a tranquil beach scene, with sunshine, sand and palm trees. It's relaxed and easygoing, much like Smith off the ice. The left side of the mask - though the same beach - depicts a windy and rainy Tampa Bay, disturbed by a ferocious storm. The most prominent feature? Lightning, of course.

It seems a testament to Smith's on-ice personality. A Tampa Bay Lightning bolt splits the two contrasting scenes across the top. Smith's number, 41, is carved into the sand along his chin, and his nickname, Smitty, along with a 'TB', is carved in sand on the back plate.

"It's pretty simple," he said. "I love the beach and I needed to bang [the design] out in a hurry."

Smith wanted to get his new gear as soon as possible so he could start looking the part of the Lightning starting goaltender he was already playing. He'd been waiting for this opportunity his whole life and wanted to waste no time embracing the role.

"When you're a kid playing road hockey, and you're the goalie, you dream of being an NHL hockey player and you dream of being a starter," he said. "It's right in front of me now."

Coming to Tampa Bay in the first trade of his career wasn't the easiest thing for Smith, and he said leaving his teammates and best friends behind was the hardest part.

"It didn't really hit me until I saw my best friends on the team that I knew I was leaving behind," he said. "It was kind of tough to take."

Smith said Marty Turco, starting goaltender for the Stars and Smith's best friend, is the one who helped make things easier.

"He just said that friends will be here forever. He said, 'Go do your thing. You deserve your shot at a No. 1, and we'll get together in the summer,'" Smith said.

Coming to Tampa with two of his Dallas teammates helped Smith, too. Center Jeff Halpern and left wing Jussi Jokinen were also part of the trade, and Smith said getting here and having familiar faces around helped make the transition easier. He said they've definitely grown closer as a result of the trade, but joked that the three have been hanging out together a bit too much.
Like many goaltenders in the NHL, Smith first found himself between the pipes at someone else's choosing. His older brother, Brad, made the decision for him.

"He was always the guy that wanted to shoot, so he shoved me in the net," he said. "He played goalie, too, growing up, so I think I wanted to be like him. After I got playing, I was like, 'Man, this is fun!' I'm a little bit crazy, so I stuck with it."

Smith also said that while playing hockey as a little kid in Verona, Ontario, everyone rotated in the net, but no one else wanted to play goalie.

"I said, 'I'll be goalie! I'll be goalie!' And here I am today."

Thought to be one of the best puck-handling goaltenders in the NHL, Smith brings a different style of play to the Lightning net that Tampa Bay fans have not seen for some time. Calling himself a wanderer, Smith leaves the crease frequently to play the puck, helping out the defenseman and speeding up the process of getting out of the zone.

"I like to wander, it keeps me in the game, I think," Smith said.

His wandering also led him to the history books, when he was playing with Lexington of the ECHL during the 2002-03 season. On Oct. 26, he was holding onto a 1-0 shutout when the opposing team, the Dayton Bombers, pulled their goalie and dumped the puck in the zone.

"I grabbed it behind the net, looked up and there was no one around and just fired it," Smith recalled. "It went right in the left-center of the net. I didn't know what to do."

Smith became just the sixth goalie in league history to score a goal. He also tied an AHL record during the 2005-06 season with the Iowa Stars when he recorded three assists in a single game. Lightning fans have already seen Smith looking for the up-ice pass to open teammates, and it's only a matter of time before they get on the same page and start connecting.

"If I see an opening, I get it up the ice as quick as I can," he said. "If a player's open and I can advance it, it's usually the best play."

Smith thinks his style of play reflects his true personality, both on and off the ice.

"I think everyone knows I'm outgoing by the way I conduct myself on the ice," he said. And outgoing could definitely describe Smith. Being a big fan of country music, Smith said if he wasn't playing hockey, he would want to be a country music star.

"That's definitely a passion," he said. "I could be a country music star or a rock star in my next life.”

Smith said he became a fan of country music before ever living in Texas, but said its prominence in the state probably would've made him a fan anyway.

"I've got some boots now, a hat and a big belt buckle," he said. "Not a big line dancer, but I can two-step," he said, and laughed. "I play the guitar, too. I'm not a very good singer, but I can strum some notes."

Smith got to meet country music legend Garth Brooks when he played a private concert for the Dallas Stars, as part of Brooks' Teammates for Kids charity.

"I had enough courage to ask him if he had a guitar, because I actually collect guitars, too," he said. "Three days later he sent me a guitar in the mail. I was pretty pumped."

Since he hadn't painted a new mask yet, Smith decided it would be a nice tribute to put Brooks on it, noting how down-to-earth and grounded he seemed to be.

"You wouldn't think that, with all he's done with country music," he said.

When he's not on the ice or strumming the guitar as his rock star persona, Smith said he loves spending time outside.

"I'm not much for sitting around and not doing anything, so I like to get out of the house," he said. "I like to be active."

Smith said he enjoys golfing, fishing and just being on the water or at the beach, and feels Tampa may be a very good fit for him, both on the beach and in the locker room.

"You can't beat the weather, and it's a good bunch of guys," he said. "I think we're definitely in the works to being another great team."

So what about his new Tampa Bay mask?

"I'll keep it for a while," he said. "Until next year. I have bigger plans for the next one."

And Tampa Bay definitely has big plans for him.

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