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THE LONG SHOT

BY JAMIE UMBACH

H

ockey in the Bluegrass State was always going to be a gamble.

The Kentucky Derby, ceremoniously dubbed 'The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports', had been running uncontested between three-year-old thoroughbreds in the city of Louisville on the one-and-one-quarter mile track of Churchill Downs since 1875 as the first leg of horse racing's prestigious Triple Crown.

When the sport tried to make inroads in 1996 an hour-and-a-half to the east on Interstate 64 in the city of Lexington - the city that paved the Man O' War Boulevard bearing the name of the horse that shared the New York Times' Outstanding Athlete of the Year Award in 1920 with Babe Ruth - hockey would have its short but triumphant heyday.

A new AHL outfit in the Kentucky Thoroughblades took up stables for its debut at the 7,500 capacity-capped Rupp Arena - the proverbial home of one of college basketball's most prestigious programs in the University of Kentucky Wildcats and an arena accustomed to housing over 23,000 of its fans and students just a 15-minute walk from campus.

When it had looked like the long odds might pay off out of the gates after attendance held steady through a losing debut season, the franchise stumbled in the home stretch with poor numbers before folding in on itself after six seasons. It's return to the city in the ECHL as the Lexington Men O' War following a year away would end up being nothing more than a victory lap when its inaugural season also served as its last.

"It was my first year playing pro, so obviously I didn't know what to expect," goaltender Mike Smith said. "Playing in a college town and playing in the same Rupp Arena as University of Kentucky basketball, you realize how big it is once you get there. Kentucky as a state has the Derby and all they're known for with the horse racing, so you wouldn't think hockey. It was kind of just a one-and-done thing."

The idea of ice, skates and sticks never grabbed in a state with traditions steeped in horseshoes and college hoops. But despite hockey's success in Lexington being nothing more than a long shot, it didn't stop the city from witnessing one of the game's most unlikely statistical events when a lanky 20-year-old goaltender from Kingston, Ontario made his professional debut against the Dayton Bombers on October 26, 2002.

Protecting a 1-0 lead with the Bombers' net empty entering the final minute, the puck was rimmed around the boards before being stopped behind the net by Smith on his backhand. With acres of space, the netminder moved it to his forehand, took a quick glance at the open cage 200 feet opposite him, and let it fly.

"Mike Smith, setting it up behind his own net. He's going to go for it," said the play-by-play voice of the Men O' War.

The puck cleared the red line before it landed. It looked on target.

"Flips it up, Mike Smith sends it the length of the ice! Will it make it?"

It bounced once and didn't slide, instead revolving on its edge, before wrapping around the inside of the net and popping out.

"Not only does he make saves, he scores goals too!"

The official stat line would read first professional win, first professional shutout, and first professional goal for the 20-year-old to become the youngest goalie in professional hockey history to ever score a goal.

"Looking back on it, I think it was a really cool way to kind of come into pro hockey," Smith said. "I don't think it's been done very often or maybe not at all. When your career is over and you're looking back at what's gone on and what's transpired, certain things stick out. I'm sure that'll be one of them."

Smith attests, even when he did it again 10 seasons later in the NHL with 0.1 seconds on the clock as member of the Phoenix Coyotes to become the 11th goaltender in the league to score a goal, he was just trying to get it as far away from their end as possible to help the team grind out the clock.

Lexington was the first stop of a long four-year journey to earn his shot at an NHL opportunity. There were many adjustments that the former fifth-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars had to make in Kentucky, Utah, Texas and Iowa before landing his first backup gig for the '06-07 season behind a mentor in Marty Turco.

"There was a lot of adversity early in my career of not knowing when or ever I was going to get a chance to be an NHL player," he said.

Fostering an already-established ability to handle the puck and take the occasional pop at the open cage was one skill on a long list Smith would employ to make it a reality, along with learning to communicate, dedicating time, being a leader in his own way, and above all - having the mindset of a winner that puts it all together.

"It was a lot of hard work and dedication to the sport, to the position, and looking back on it you don't want to be in the minors for four years but it was probably the best thing that could've happened to me."

Turco received a brief introduction to a 6-foot-5, curly-haired netminder with floppy hair and a big smile at the onset of Stars training camp in 2001.

Then, Smith was preparing for his OHL swansong with the Sudbury Wolves and hadn't played a professional game - let alone score a goal. It was just before Turco began his second season as the Dallas backup to an established veteran in Ed Belfour, and a season before Smith would light the lamp from in his shutout debut with the Men O' War.

"He wasn't even a rookie when I met him," Turco, a veteran of nine seasons with the Stars, said of encountering Smith for the first time. "He was a draft pick playing in the OHL and a teenager coming to camp ."

"His athletic ability just immediately stood out. You see him off the ice, you see him on the ice, and you think: 'Alright, this guy has some talent.'"

Little did they both know, their introduction would be the kickstarter to a future tandem in the Lone Star State and a strong friendship that still stands up to this day.

"He had enough confidence about him to mingle with the vets and the younger guys," Turco said. "He felt comfortable, but you could also tell he wanted it. Sometimes he didn't know how to get it, he knew the talent was there, and he just had a way about him."

After Smith spent the next five seasons spread across Sudbury, Lexington, Utah, Houston and Iowa working towards an opportunity with the Stars, the backup role to Turco looked to be within reach ahead of the '06-07 campaign despite undergoing shoulder surgery that offseason.

The team's leadership group, including Turco and captain Brenden Morrow, sensed his ascendance to the backup role and had a blueprint for involving the rookies more heavily in the culture of the locker room. By then, the Stars organization was coming off sustained success as one of the Western Conference's perennial contenders with seven division titles in nine years and a Stanley Cup in 1999.

"For us, we were all in on the team and wanted to win," Turco said. "We had a similar thought process on how to get it done and take care of the young guys. Having relationships with all our teammates we found to be super important."

Turco's affinity to the young Smith and the nature of the goaltender union made it an easy choice to extend an open invitation for the rookie to set up shop on the third floor of his family's new home in Dallas with his wife Kelly and two daughters Hailey and Katelyn (and soon-to-be son Finley).

"I'm not one to try and be a mentor or push opinions. I understand what it's like to be young and to be in a different place, knowing that an increased comfort level for anyone is just going to help out with the transition," Turco said. "I told him that if he needed a place to stay for the next year when we thought he was going to be full-time on the roster, he could move in."

"That's where I got to spend a lot of time with him and that's why he's a dear friend to this day."

The Turco's furniture arrived soon after and the family spent no more than three days in their new home before retreating back to Canada to spend the summer in Sault Ste. Marie. When Smith was summoned to Dallas early to begin rehabbing his shoulder, Smith got the new digs all to himself when his tenancy at the Turco residence was offered to be bumped up.

"Marty was not just a good teacher, but also a mentor in general showing me the way to becoming a good pro athlete," Smith said. "Coming into the league as a young guy and trying to find my way, his family was incredibly generous taking me under their wing and letting me live in the house for a few months."

When the season was in full swing, the pair of netminders would spend many late nights after games in the living room breaking down their performances while occupying the chairs purchased by Kelly that were meant more as a gift for the couple rather than the budding bromance.

"We still have these chairs in our living room that my wife bought me during the building phase that are called the 'his & his' chairs after Mike and I commandeered them for the first few months of him living with us," laughed Turco. "We still laugh about it to this day."

Mike was taken into the Turco family, and the relationship worked both ways with plenty of chances for the two families to get to know each other. It even provided Mike the gift of the setting to meet his future wife Brigitte, a former Olympic and World Cup skier and now mother of his four kids Aksel, Ajax, Nixon and Kingsley, at one of Marty's golf tournaments.

"Having him as a young guy, then just spending time with him on a daily basis, it was good. It was the right thing to do, and looking back on it now it was a special time."

There's wanting to win, and then there's adapting your game to do what it takes to win.

"I think the day you're done learning and trying to improve is probably the day you're not playing anymore," Smith said. "I was taught at a young age that work ethic starts with that. Every chance you get to improve your craft and get better is an opportunity to go out there and work at it."

When embarking on his rookie NHL season with Dallas under the tutelage of Turco and Head Coach Dave Tippett, the bench boss he'd reunite with 13 seasons later in Edmonton, he luckily already had an established pedigree for playing the puck. Learning how to use it properly to his team's advantage would be one of those adjustments needed to succeed in the Stars' system.

Tippett was able to help Smith understand from the start of his big-league career the impact his smart puck play could have on winning as a coach who regularly deploys the 'five up, five back' system today with Smith linking up play from between the pipes as his sixth man on the ice for the Oilers. That set-up was no different during a seven-season stint in the desert behind Tippett once again from 2011-17 with the Arizona Coyotes.

"Fortunately, a few times over his career, he's had Dave as a coach who understands the benefit of having a puck-moving goalie like a defenceman," Turco said. "When it just comes down to winning and losing, it's about putting in the time and giving your team more of an advantage."

The idea was first delivered to Turco as a backup to Belfour years earlier behind another former Oilers head coach in Ken Hitchcock, who was helping start the league's revolution towards more regular puck-playing netminders before it continued to be preached with Tippett at the helm.

"That's how Dave talked when he was here, and before that with Hitchcock and Belfour talking about creating relationships with the puck and how that could open the door for me," Turco said. "Tippett took over and I became the goalie here. We got to run with it."

But there's always a little room for ingenuity on the side of the one turning the lessons into execution during games.

Beginning with the goal of finding better ways to play pucks rimmed in on his backhand as a University of Michigan puckstopper, Turco was sick of losing the puck with his glove hand on the bottom of his stick's shaft and instead turned it over on top to allow himself more maneuverability.

More reps handling the puck in the Stars system under Hitchcock and Tippett only strengthened the effectiveness of what would come to be known as 'The Turco Grip'. Smith, being the sponge that he was at this early point of his career behind his counterpart, was keen to follow suit.

"I was just watching a lot of the stuff that he did, asking a lot of questions, and he was very helpful to share his thoughts and ideas with me," Smith said. "Now that I've been around the league a long time, you're just trying to put your own touches on what you've learned from different guys you've played with. Obviously, Marty had a big impact on that part of my game."

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For Turco, helping Smith build trust in the technique wasn't difficult due to his natural ability and proven success in the minors manipulating the puck. Getting him to satisfy the peripherals that go with it would be the main challenge.

"There's a lot of good solid puck movers and there's a lot of really efficient ones," Turco said. "From the onset, I saw Mike was big and strong and had the ability to fire it. But we wanted him to concentrate on making great decisions, being concise and clear, and being a great communicator too. I think that's one of the most underrated things as well."

Understanding elements like defencemen's handedness, their voices, and where they go on the ice in expectation of accepting a pass all go hand-in-hand with knowing where to play the pass in hopes of providing blueliners some longevity in their shoulders by not getting crushed on the endboards. You can even connect on a stretch pass or two to the forwards if you keep your head up.

"Watching him do it gives me a tremendous sense of pride when he's out there saucing it around, making breakout passes, and saving his defenceman from getting smoked."

Ultimately, it all comes back to the attention to detail needed to win.

It was one of the many conversations shared between the pair in the living room of Turco's home in the 'his & his' chairs they commandeered from his wife, with Smith carrying on that instructional mindset as an Oilers veteran for a young core and a new goaltending partner in Mikko Koskinen.

"That's one thing with Mike that we share a common bond with - we wanted to do whatever we could to help the team," Turco said. "That goes with him taking care of young guys now, being a leader, and being vocal."

Even when two puck-handling mishaps early in his Oilers tenure on October 5 against the Los Angeles Kings led to two regrettable goals against in the first period, Smith had to stay level-headed for his teammates.

"As an older player you're here for leadership, and I've always had some sort of a swagger to my game where you need that to show yourself, your teammates, and the other team that you're still involved in the game even if things aren't going well as they need to go," he said.

With every forgettable outcome that goes with being a puckmover, there are the memorable ones that help your side on the scoreboard and in the standings.

A stretch pass to Connor McDavid in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets that earned honourary third-assist accolades when James Neal buried the power-play marker summed up everything admirable about the benefits of a netminder like Smith.

Even after being bedridden with the flu and having his Training Camp arrival delayed until the team's trip to Kelowna, he knew those first few on-ice sessions he missed were invaluable for opening the lines of communication directly to his teammates on how they could best adapt to his puck-playing tendencies.

His influence as a puckmoving netminder would take on extra importance for a new team under new direction in Tippett. The role is one connected to the independence of a position that regularly serves as a barometer for the pressure felt by the players on the bench at any given moment of a game.

"I think obviously it's a position where everyone's watching you," he said. "Your teammates are watching your body language and everything that happens throughout the game, so I think it's something of a contagious position. If you're letting things affect you and your teammates are seeing that you're down in certain situations, then it's probably not going to help the group."

Having the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in front of him to help bail him out of situations like the one against Los Angeles, or vice versa after making 51 saves in a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins a month later, was a big draw of joining the Oilers as a free agent on July 1.

"A leadership group isn't just one guy. It's numerous guys," Smith said. "I think they feel like they're a big part of this team, and even older guys are looking up to those guys to lead by example, to have a voice, and obviously as an older guy you want to support those guys as much as you can and let them do their thing. If they need a little tap on the butt, then we're here for them."

Smith is a leader who'd rather his play on the ice set an example over his vocal contributions, but won't hesitate to chime in with his opinions as a veteran voice for his young and budding teammates.

Becoming a leader wasn't necessarily born out of want, but more out of necessity as a ranking voice in the locker room. That understanding reaches new levels of understanding now as a father of four on his fifth NHL team over a 14-year career in the League.

"He has the experience, and he's a father and has played on good teams and he's been there. He's been successful," Turco said. "I don't think Mike even wants to stand up and say 'Hey listen to me.' It's more that he wants to be part of something. He knows how he can help, and at the end of the day it's important to him to share his experience when available."

Aksel, Ajax, Nixon and Kingsley are at the age now where they understand what dad does.

"I think it's nice to be able to bring your kids around the locker room to see some of the best players in the world that they're in awe of," Smith said. "I can remember being a kid in awe of professional athletes, so I can only imagine what's going through their mind."

Being around NHL players like McDavid, Draisaitl and a long-time friend in James Neal might be taken for granted right now for them, but as both Mike and the kids' age increases it gets a lot easier to come home from the rink regardless of the result.

Coming to the junction of his career where winning is even more of a motive, the quest towards achieving that goal for Smith is about more than wins and losses - it's about being a good teammate.

It's about supporting the other half of the goaltending tandem in Koskinen when watching from the bench, and putting in the preparation when it does come time for him to feature between the pipes to secure those all-important W's in the standings for when they do matter come playoff time.

Once the pupil under Turco, Smith is the teacher now through his on-ice commitment to doing what's necessary and being a guiding voice when needed thanks to his veteran status in the Oilers locker room.

"You don't just turn it on and off, it's got to be an all-time thing," Turco said. "He wears his emotions on his sleeve, he works hard, and he's in great shape. Even though he is older, he's ready to go and be productive. All those things translate into being a born-and-ready leader like he is."

It's been a long road to Edmonton that began with his first win, shutout, and goal on his debut in pro hockey in Kentucky playing a position based solely on the individual, but it's all geared towards collective gain.

"It taught me a lot of things about being a pro, and it's got me to where I am today and those experiences are priceless are far as I'm concerned."

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