Hockey 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."