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Climbing The Ladder

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Austin Smith is sailing through uncharted waters, and as the Dallas native continues to progress towards his eventual goal of playing for his hometown Stars, he serves as a role model for thousands of hockey-playing kids in the Metroplex.

After skating for Penticton in the Junior A British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) last season, the 19-year-old right winger will head off for Division 1 Colgate University in the fall to further his already-considerable development.

And while Smith is honored to have made history when the Stars selected him in the fifth round (128th overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft, becoming the first from Dallas to hear his named called, he also views his status as a great responsibility.

“It’s going to be challenging - obviously, there’s quite a bit of pressure, you’re the first kid, but at the same time, it’s fun,” the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Smith noted. “You want to try to take advantage of it and try to work your way to get there some day. I’m going off to college next year, obviously there’s still a lot of work to do, but just keeping working hard and take every opportunity you can get.”

Of course, as the product of a youth hockey system that was essentially started from scratch 15 years ago when the Minnesota North Stars relocated here, Smith exemplifies the tremendous growth of hockey in the area.

With just one ice sheet devoted to hockey back in 1993 and about 250 kids playing, the arrival of the Stars jump-started the youth movement here, building rinks and getting kids (and their parents) hooked on the sport through participation. It took a few years for the programs to gain some traction, but since the mid-to-late ‘90s, the growth has been astronomical, both in quantity and quality. 

That the local programs have come so far so quickly has been amazing and a testament to the area parents and coaches who have put in so many hours of hard work helping to grow the game and develop kids’ skills. 

“Dallas is probably the benchmark for all what I call the Southern states for the development of minor hockey,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “When you start the league, the first five or six years is to put the base in place and after that, you start developing and now you’re starting to see the fruits of that, 10-12 years later. These programs have become so good, so competitive. You just see what these kids, our local teams, do in tournaments around North America, not just in the States, but around North America, and they do very well. So the development is phenomenal. 

“A couple of things go into that. You’ve got to have the people willing to put the time in, willing to put the effort in, you have to have the facilities, and you have to have the organizations to do that.”

“It’s awesome,” added former Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, who has been heavily involved in coaching local youth teams over the past several years and is now assistant coach for the local NAHL junior club, the Texas Tornado. “We’ve been trying to get to that level for years now and I think it’s a huge credit to the coaches that worked with (Smith). He’s one of those guys that stands out here, he’s got some good hands, he’s probably not as thick as he’d like to be, but he’s still growing and he’s going to get big. I tell you, I get more people, when we’re around the country playing with our teams, that say, ‘Wow, that kid’s from Texas? I didn’t know you had those kinds of players in Texas.’”

The rest of the country is slowly learning that, as Dallas teams have been regularly reaching USA Hockey national championship tournaments in various age brackets, with the peewee Ice Jets squad (ages 12 and under) winning the first Tier 1 national title for the state of Texas in 2006.

There are also several highly-rated kids in the ’93 and ’94 birth years playing in Dallas right now, who could very well eclipse Smith’s accomplishments when all is said and done. All in all, it appears that Dallas has a very bright future as a producer of elite-level talent.

“I know there’s quite a few names, there’s five or six kids who in the near future will be in the same spot, maybe even (drafted) higher, because the programs are building and they’re getting a lot more successful down here,” Smith acknowledged. “I know a couple of years ago, the first team won Tier 1 nationals down here. They’re just building every year and really starting to develop some solid players.”

“The progress here in Dallas has been tremendous,” agreed Tim Bernhardt, the Stars’ Director of Amateur Scouting. “There’s more and more rinks all the time and Austin is one of the first kids to come out of those programs. What he lacks in size he makes up for in heart. We love his heart and his passion and his willingness and determination to play the game.”

While he serves as a symbol of the tremendous growth of the area, which went from having virtually no competitive hockey to a blossoming hockey hotbed, Smith the player is highly-skilled with impressive drive and emotion on the ice, as Bernhardt pointed out. Those are highly desirable qualities that can’t be taught, so the Stars really like that about him.

“He’s still a young kid. He’s got a lot of energy and he’s really enthusiastic about playing,” Stars co-General Manager Les Jackson stated. “He has a lot of internal desire that makes him an interesting player, because he loves to play and at the end of the day, the passion and love for the game that players bring, those are the guys you want and Austin certainly has those.” 

It’s not surprising then that he names current Stars captain Brenden Morrow and New Jersey Devils captain (and former Star) Jamie Langenbrunner as his favorite players and guys he’s tried to pattern his game after.

“I’ve always liked Morrow and Langenbrunner,” Smith revealed. “I’ve always liked those kind of players that play gritty, tough and can score goals, too. Skilled guys, so those two guys have always been my favorite players.”

Smith, who erupted for 27 goals and 47 points in just 15 games as a sophomore at Dallas’ Jesuit High School in 2004-05, has taken multiple steps up the hockey ladder since he last skated on Dallas-area ice in 2005-06. He then went away to a Connecticut prep school, the Gunnery, where he scored an impressive 25 goals and 63 points in just 30 games.

Last year, Smith then made the jump to British Columbia, joining Penticton of the BCHL. Other noted luminaries who have skated for Penticton include Stars co-GM Brett Hull, player development/goaltending coach Andy Moog and St. Louis Blues star Paul Kariya, so it’s not exactly an obscure outpost on the hockey landscape. 

Smith enjoyed an outstanding regular season, posting 32 goals and 67 points, both second on his team, in 60 games, before raising his play another level in the post-season. Contributing 11 goals and 22 points in 15 games, Smith helped lead the Vees to the league championship, earning playoff Most Valuable Player honors in the process.

“Last year was huge, I gained a whole new experience,” Smith said. “I played in Canada for the year, I learned what that’s all about, I was in a hockey world. Had a good regular season and then had an unbelievable playoffs, kind of took off, took MVP of that league in the playoffs, kind of bolstered my game a lot. I played with a lot of confidence.”

“Austin played US prep school and had a great stepping stone last year in Penticton in the BC Hockey League, and won a championship, which is a great thing,” Bernhardt added. “And he was a big part of that championship, he was the leading scorer in the playoffs for that team. Austin is just one of those kids whose passion for the game, you can just see it, he just oozes it. Very happy with his progress, and next year is a big step for him going into college hockey, but he looks like he’s prepared for it.”

Moving to an area where hockey is an integral part of the fabric of the community was an eye-opener for Smith.

“It’s a completely different world up there, they don’t even know we play hockey down here in Dallas,” Smith said. “They’re all kind of welcoming and they want to help you try to get better as well, so it was a great experience overall. I have no complaints. It was a fun year, I learned a lot and met a lot of kids that are good players.”

“He’s made some really good steps,” Jackson said of Smith. “Going to Canada last year and playing in Penticton was a real good culture change in the sense that he went into a hockey environment, learned about hockey being a big part of life every day. So I think that was good and that should help set him up good for his start in Colgate.”

After already having secured a scholarship to attend Colgate before last year, Smith is excited to move on to the next phase of his evolution.

“It’s going to be a good experience,” he said. “I’m going to get up there, it’ll probably be a tough start and then once I get into it, it’ll be good.”

As this will be his fourth season in a row in a new environment, Smith is beginning to get the hang of adjusting to new locations, new people and new styles of hockey, not to mention coaches and teammates.

“It’s good, it builds character,” Smith noted. “You’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, learning to play in new places. I’m getting pretty good at it. It’s always tough at the beginning, because you’re in a new place and you’re trying to learn the ways of where you’re playing and the coaches’ systems. I’m sure it will be the exact same way next year. My coach will probably have a different system than the previous coach. It’s all about working hard and putting the time in, that’s how it is wherever you go.”

While he has already traversed a long, meandering journey, Smith is happy with his choices and thrilled with his decision to head to the NCAA rather than play Canadian major junior in the Western Hockey League (WHL). It’s a credit to his character and maturity that he recognized that he needs more time to develop and get bigger and this path provides that.

“In that way, I’m more of a realist, that if I am going to get here, I’m going to have to take a development route,” Smith said. “I’m going to need to take a couple more years and develop that way, and college is the perfect route for that, because obviously, you’re going to get a little bit bigger while I’m there, and it’s still good competition. I’m going to be pushed while I’m there, so that should be a good route to take my development two, three, maybe four years. 

“At least that way, I’ve got more time to develop, as opposed to playing in the WHL, maybe I’m not ready at 20 and you kind of run out of time.  You’re on a time clock on that route.”

No matter where he’s from, Stars fans should be excited about his continuing progress and the potential he has displayed, which suggests he can become an impact player in the NHL one day. And he wants to show the up-and-coming kids playing youth hockey in the Metroplex that the ultimate goal can be achieved by a local kid.

“I’ve got a lot to prove, because I want to set a good example and hopefully get here some day,” Smith said. “It’s something to get drafted, but to make it is what you eventually want, to make the final step.” 

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