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Hockey is a brotherhood, but it can also be a tough business

The players can only control so much, but they can still help tip hard decisions in their favor

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Martin Hanzal will return from a six-month rehabilitation for spinal fusion surgery Friday, and that means that Gemel Smith is now a member of the Boston Bruins.

That seems like a strange chain of events, but it's a reminder that the NHL is a business, and that young players are fighting for their jobs every game.

Hanzal is a veteran player making $4.75 million a year, so he will occupy a spot in the lineup pretty much every game that he is healthy. His return means a spot needs to be cleared on the 23-man roster, and that means the Stars had to make a tough decision.

Smith was picked up by the Bruins on Thursday and will now be a part of their organization. Smith, who was drafted in 2012 by the Stars and was in his fifth season with the organization, had a heartfelt goodbye before departing.

But, as he left, the rest of the team was reminded that this is both a brotherhood and a business.

"It's tough, because it is a business and you yourself are a business," said Jason Dickinson, who is grabbing regular games after going up and down between the minors and NHL last season.

Dickinson battled with Smith and Remi Elie for playing time in training camp, and that was difficult because the three were close teammates on the Texas Stars.

"As much as we're buddies, me and Remi and Gemel knew we were fighting each other for a place on the team," Dickinson said. "So you understand that, but it's also being able to put that aside and show up to the rink and play your best, and that has to be your focus.

Video: Montgomery expects Hanzal to help Stars right away

"Honestly, it is a job and you have to do your best to do your job."

Dickinson said he still is friends with the duo and keeps up regularly with Elie, who was claimed on waivers by Buffalo in October. That's another hard part of the job, understanding that you can only control so much. Smith played in just 14 games this season, so he had to find a way to make an impression in just 8:01 of ice time a game.

"It's a tough situation, because other players maybe got more opportunity, but at the same time, you have to force the issue for the coach," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. "You play yourself into the lineup, and you can play yourself out of the lineup."

It's a difficult mental challenge for young players, and one that has been faced a lot recently on the Stars.

Patrik Nemeth was claimed on waivers by Colorado last season, while Jamie Oleksiak was traded to the Penguins after he couldn't become a lineup regular. Elie and Smith were lost on waivers this season, and now players such as Valeri Nichushkin and Julius Honka will be battling for a lineup spot.

That's tough when you consider Nichushkin was taken 10th overall in 2013 and Honka was drafted 14th overall in 2014. Finding that balance between expectations and reality can be tough for young players.

"It took a while for me," said Dickinson, who was drafted 29th overall in 2013. "It's hard to look at it as a long-term plan, because you work so hard to get here and you're ready to go. We're young and eager and ready to perform, and sometimes you don't get that chance right away, so it takes time to understand it's a process.

"I'm only 23, Gemel is 24, and sometimes guys don't find their place until they're 25 or 26. You just have to be able to put everything into it and understand that you can only control what you can control."

Tweet from @DallasStars: The team is a family and it's never easy seeing someone leave.Gemel Smith says goodbye to his teammates after being claimed off waivers by the Boston Bruins this morning. pic.twitter.com/OchvtO2AKZ

And sometimes it takes a change of environment for some players. Both Nemeth and Oleksiak have become regulars with their new teams.

"Sometimes it's your fit with the coaching staff or the system, and you just need a change," said Dickinson. "That can be big for some players."

Because the battle to understand the mental challenge might be as big as your athletic talent in deciding whether you make it or not. Dickinson said he went through some growth last season and decided that he had to force his way into the lineup.

"I think you can think you're really trying and then you have to go dig even deeper," Dickinson said. "It's easy to say it's everybody else's fault when it's not working out, but I do think you have to look in the mirror and ask if you're doing everything you can.

"It didn't really dawn on me until last year when I realized that when I was in Austin, I was playing much different than I was playing up here. I was playing with so much more confidence and I was so much more driven down there, and I had to finally understand that."

But each player understands at his own pace. Every organization is battling to develop its players the right way, and every player is battling to become a success in the league. And so when tough decisions are made, it's with the best interest of the team always at heart.

"We're not in the business of picking favorites, we're in the business of picking players who will help us win hockey games," Montgomery said. "And the players that demonstrate the consistency and the will and the skill are the ones who are going to get rewarded."

Which makes a hard business seem a little bit more fair in the end.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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