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Smith's decision could be a win-win for coach, Chiefs

by Lindsay Kramer
The point-counter points were flying back and forth earlier this week as Neil Smith took over his new job as interim head coach of Johnstown.

Bad move: "I got to tell you. The pay isn't very good. My boss is very cheap."

Good move: "I can't get fired."

Since Smith's decision was one of the most attention-grabbing in recent ECHL history, most people know the punch line by now -- Smith owns the Chiefs. By his own volition he also is its temporary coach, a twist he never would have believed had someone broached it when he bought the team in 2002.

"I would have told them they were crazy. I'd never do it," he said. "I looked at my resume and I saw the only thing I haven't done is coach. I figured I better go out and do that."

The reality of the situation cuts short the humor. Smith finds himself in the somewhat unique position of coaching the team only because he fired coach Jeff Flanagan. While Smith's long pro hockey resume may not include coaching, it does feature the go-down-in history position as the GM of the 1994 Stanley Cup-winning Rangers.

Smith, 55, takes over a squad whose 25 points are the fewest in the league. He ran his first practices Jan. 11 and 12, then lost his debut at Trenton on Jan. 13.

"I don't cost myself anything. I bring some cache to the fans. The fans will know we're trying to fix things," Smith said. "If I keep doing this and like it, I'm going to wonder why I didn't do this a long time ago.'"

Appropriately enough, Smith said he's starting with the basics. Good power plays must begin with gaining the offensive zone, putting on the brakes and setting up, for instance. Shootout skills should be practiced, he stressed, because you can earn as many points in five minutes there as you did in the first 65 minutes of the game.

"You get back on the ice with real hockey players, it energizes you again. It's hockey," he said. "Maybe this (coaching) is teaching me a lesson. When I first started in hockey, off the ice, I didn't have confidence in myself as a coach. Because I didn't play in the NHL, I thought the players will all know they are better than me, because they played and I didn't. Then you get older and you are not as intimidated. They are very attentive when I speak to them, which I imagine will wear off at some point."

Smith isn't sure when that will happen, but he has a decent idea of when he'll begin feeling the wear and tear of his experiment

"I'll tell you when it will start to get like that - in the game," he said. "We've stressed to the players accountability. The players will start to look to us to be accountable once the game starts."
Something to prove -- New Victoria Salmon Kings defenseman Andy Rogers has no way of knowing what his tenure in Victoria is about to bring, but it's already off to a good start with his opening statement.

"This is the best I've felt for a couple years," he said.

If you're Rogers, you take that as a gift and go from there.
Rogers' pro career has been notable for two things: he was a first-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2004 and injuries have kept him from living up to that promise ever since.

In his rookie year with Springfield in 2006-07, a hip injury limited him to 48 contests. The next season he played in a combined 34 with Mississippi of the ECHL and Norfolk of the AHL. Last season, he bumped that number up to 35 total with Norfolk and the Toronto Marlies.

This season, an unspecified ailment limited him to six with the Marlies before they let him go. In his four-year professional career, that totals 123 games. The 6-foot-5 Rogers, 23, recovered from his latest issues at home in Calgary before the Salmon Kings lured him with a free-agent deal earlier this week.

"I don't cost myself anything. I bring some cache to the fans. The fans will know we're trying to fix things. If I keep doing this and like it, I'm going to wonder why I didn't do this a long time ago." -- Neil Smith

"I definitely still have to prove myself. Everything has been speed bump after speed bump," he said. "The main knock on me is my injury bug. It definitely is (frustrating), but it's no excuse for anything. The onus is on me to stay healthy and the rest of the pieces will fall into place."
So close, so far -- Paul Healey is about 15 minutes from the NHL. The forward knows the way there, since he's played 77 games in that league.

But when the veteran goes to work these days he drives in the opposite direction. He leaves his home in Weston, Fla., which is a short hop from where the Panthers play, and makes a 90-minute drive to Fort Myers, home of the Florida Everblades.

So close, and yet so very far away from the top.

"That's true. You think about it," said Healey, 34. "But for the better part, I try to block it out, do my best, and see where it takes me."

Right now, that destination is the ECHL for the very first time in Healey's career. The long-time AHL finisher is trying to wind down his career close to home after spending the past three seasons overseas. The last time he was a regular minor leaguer was 2005-06, when he went 19-21 with Lowell of the AHL.

This season, with his wife pregnant with their first child, Healey decided to stay in North America. He went to camp in Bridgeport, but when nothing came of that he returned home and, unsure of his future, briefly stopped working out. He regained his sense of urgency when the Panthers called with an ECHL offer three weeks later. In his first 10 games with the Everblades, Healey contributed 4 goals and 3 assists.

"I needed a place to play. Why not start here?" Healey said. "I'm not going to give it a timetable. I've usually kept myself in good shape. I feel I can bring whatever I was bringing on the ice before."
Around the ECHL -- Nine different Charlotte players scored in the Checkers' 9-4 win over Gwinnett on Jan. 13. … Kalamazoo has earned its last two road wins with its final shot of the game. The K-Wings defeated Toledo on Jan. 1 with a goal from Jeff Mason with 3.7 seconds remaining and on Jan. 6 Rick Cleaver recorded the game-winner in overtime against Johnstown. … Cleaver played in his 100th pro contest vs. Charlotte on Jan. 9. … Barret Ehgoetz has 203 points (72-131) in 235 games with Cincinnati and is the second player in team history to reach 200 points. … Before beating South Carolina on Jan. 10, the Gladiators set a team record of nine-consecutive games without a regulation win, going 3-6-0-1 from Dec. 13 to Jan. 9. ... Elmira's 3-1 win over Florida on Jan. 8 marked the first time this season that the Jackals won a regulation game while scoring fewer than four goals. … Stockton rookie defenseman Anthony Aiello produced his first multi-goal game vs. Bakersfield on Jan. 10. …The Thunder has scored 24 goals in its last six games. … Johnstown had its first sellout of the season with 3,904 on Jan. 6 against Kalamazoo. … Idaho set a season high for goals in an 8-2 win at Victoria on Jan. 9. … Three of the four Condors' games in Stockton this season have ended in overtime, and all three OT winners were power play goals. … Bakersfield had not won a game all season in which it trailed after two periods, but the team did it in both its games against Stockton last weekend. … Reading netminder Matt Dalton picked up his 11th win of the year when he stopped 35 of the 38 shots he faced from the Everblades on Jan. 10. Last season, no goalie hit that number for the Royals. … Rob LaLonde played in his 153rd career game for Reading on Jan. 13, moving him past current Royals head coach Larry Courville for fourth on that list all-time.

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