– The junior season of a college player’s hockey career can be a turning point for prospects. A strong year can result in a pro contract while a weak one means more time in college.
Defenseman Brendan Smith
hopes to have a breakout junior campaign at the University of Wisconsin. Under the tutelage of Badgers coaches Mike Eaves and Mark Osiecki – both former NHL players -- Smith expects to play a full season and hopefully earn a professional contract next summer.
“In my mind, I’m just going to try to deliver as best as I can this year and just try to put everything on the line and see how I do,” said Smith, 21. “If it is time, then it’s time but I guess we’ll have to decide that by the end of the year.”
Smith suffered numerous injuries in his first two years with Wisconsin so he has yet to play a full season, which has been frustrating to say the least for the defenseman. He missed 18 games with a bulging disc in his lower back during his freshman season and then broke his wrist, which interrupted a strong sophomore campaign.
Management says that his game reminds them of how Niklas Kronwall
plays and unfortunately that seems to have extended into being injury prone. Kronwall had a breakout season when he was finally able to stay healthy, and Smith hope that’s the case with him this year.
“I totally hope it’s the exact same thing,” Smith said. “I haven’t had a full season. In my first two years I was off to really good starts and then kind of got hurt and really didn’t get it back until the playoffs. Hopefully it’ll be a breakout year for me and I’ll stay healthy.”
He decided to go the college route over the Ontario Hockey League because his parents, who are educators, emphasized the importance of getting a degree. In addition, Smith thought he needed to get bigger and spending three to four years in college would give him the opportunity to do so. He opted for Wisconsin after considering Michigan, Miami (Ohio), and Boston University because of the coaching staff, campus, and the opportunity to develop.
While Smith is happy with his choice, the first year was hard and it took awhile for him to adjust to his new settings.
“My first year was too hard to take in,” Smith said. “I’m going to have to say it really took me two years to try to grasp everything. It’s just been unbelievable.”
The Kohl Center, Wisconsin’s home rink in Madison, can be an overwhelming place to play even for the home players thanks to the raucous crowd of 15,000 raucous Badgers’ fans.
“The whole arena, every game I’ve been there, is pretty much hopping and it’s a fantastic atmosphere,” said Jiri Fischer, the Red Wings director of player development. “They’ve got a student section of almost 5,000 students and everybody is singing with the band and jumping around and doing little dances so it could be an overwhelming atmosphere when guys let it get into their heads.”
The knowledge of the Badgers’ coaching staff has paid off in dividends for the 5-foot-11, 170-pound defenseman, and Smith constantly picks their brain, particularly Eaves, for ways to improve his game.
“He was an All-American at Wisconsin and everything,” Smith said. “I know what he’s telling me is right because everybody is telling me all of the same things so just looking up to him and trying to feed off of him and pick his brain. It’s a great feeling, knowing you have a coach like that.”
In his third year at the Wings’ annual development camp, it’s no surprise that Smith has taken on the role of leader. He goes first in drills and offers advice to the new prospects.
“We know how good he is on the ice and hopefully he can match the same thing being off the ice – role model for little kids and leader on the ice, off the ice,” Fischer said. “He’s really trying to be a leader here in the development camp and that’s also very needed.”
The Wings just hope Smith can lead his Badgers with a strong, healthy season next season and demonstrate that he’s ready to play professionally.Christy Hammond is an intern in the Red Wings' New Media & Publishing Department at Joe Louis Arena.