So it’s not surprising that Smith, a fifth-round pick of the Dallas Stars in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, is a favorite to win the 2012 Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the top player in the collegiate ranks.
But it’s not like this is his first strong performance at Colgate. He has finished with 31 points both as a freshman and junior and as a sophomore, set a career high with had 41 points (16-25-41). However, now that he’s healthy, he has outdone himself as a senior and couldn’t be happier.
“I came off a disappointing season, wasn’t a very good year for the team or myself. I came in having some high expectations and from the very beginning, it’s just really taken off. I’ve kind of kept that goal a game pace every night,” Smith said. “Having a good time, it’s been a huge turnaround.”
Colgate head coach Don Vaughan is someone else who is pretty pleased to see his top forward finally healthy and helping lead the Raiders to plenty of wins and a likely berth in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
“Austin’s having a very special year. Obviously he came in very determined, really committed to having a good senior year. I think being healthy has had a lot to do with that,” Vaughan said. “He had a good summer. He came in here and he’s doing a lot of things really well.”
Earlier in his collegiate career, he was bothered by hip issues and it was after his sophomore season that he learned he had torn labrums in both hips. He had surgery on one hip that summer but waited until last summer to get the other hip fixed. But now that he’s healthy, he admits he’s a completely different player.
“Now I feel one million times better. I don’t want to use that as an excuse for past seasons, but it was definitely a struggle,” Smith admits. “Every week I was in a lot of pain and definitely wasn’t 100 percent. This year I’m giving it 110 percent every night and have been ready to go. It’s been way easier on me, not having to worry about my health, just being able to focus, go out and play and have fun. It’s made the transition this year a lot easier.”
His tenacity, perseverance and drive is not news to Stars Director of Scouting and Player Development Les Jackson, who continues to be impressed with what this Dallas native accomplishes on the ice as well as his makeup.
“Yeah, he’s a real determined kid. He just wants to be a player so bad. Even when he was in prep school, he played the same way every year. I think that he’s just a kid that wants it so bad, he’s going to do everything he can to get it,” Jackson said.
In fact, it was the ex-Stars assistant general manager who had a hand in taking Smith in the fifth round of the ’07 draft, something this Dallas native calls a big honor.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool. I still think it was a million years ago after I graduated from prep school. That’s quite an honor,” Smith said. “Obviously I want to make that jump to the next level and making it to an NHL game eventually would be the ultimate goal. I really want to prove I can play at that level and that it wasn’t just a publicity stunt and that I can make that jump.”
And he realizes that since he’s been drafted, there have been several other DFW products who have also been picked or who are now playing in juniors, college or even in the minors, something that is pretty nice to see.
“It says a lot for other players around the area, gives hope for some of the other kids. I know we’ve already had several local players taken in the higher rounds. It’s really starting to progress in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” Smith said. “It’s great to see some younger players jump up in the college ranks, major junior ranks or wherever. Hopefully we’ll start to see more players as well.”
The Dallas native spent his freshman and sophomore seasons playing for Jesuit High School before moving to a prep school in Connecticut for his final two seasons. But as someone who has seen firsthand how much high school hockey has grown in the Metroplex since the Stars’ 1993 arrival, he takes great pride in having played two seasons for the Jesuit Rangers.
“When I played high school it was kind of a big thing for all the travel players and top-end players to play. I know now it’s changed a little bit,” Smith said. “It was a good experience. I think my sophomore year we either lost in the state final or the state semifinals. It was good to play against some of the guys you play with on the same team. It was cool to see the local support and everyone getting to learn hockey at the high school level. Even though it wasn’t as high of a level, it still gave the games some exposure and that was pretty cool.”
But after he finished up his high school career at The Gunnery School in Connecticut, he spent one year in the juniors, playing for Penticton Valley of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) in the 2007-08 season. In 60 regular-season games, he had 67 points (32-35-67) and added another 22 markers (11-11-22) in 15 playoff games as the Vees won the BCHL title.
For some, playing junior hockey can be a real eye opener. It wasn’t exactly that for Smith, but as he looks back he realizes how important his one season in juniors was to his developmental process.
“I’d say that was the most pivotal year in my development hands down. I had two really good years in prep school, but I don’t think I would have been ready for the jump had I not taken my year of juniors,” he said. “I learned how to win and what it takes to win. There were just so many valuable lessons that I wouldn’t have learned playing college or prep school.”
However, the lessons didn’t end there for this Dallas native.
“I learned how you’ve got to take care of your body,” Smith said. “Teams at the next level want to know that you can win and compete and know what it takes to win every night. I think it helps me and my reputation. It was a huge year for me and I’m really glad I took that opportunity. It was a good cultural experience because I played in a pure hockey environment, going to Canada and being immersed in the culture, the fans and what it’s all about. That was also a welcome surprise.”
And like many college players who have spent at least one season in junior hockey, he feels the experience helped prepare him for what to expect at Colgate, which has been a great experience for him. However, he admits the last three years have been a bit of a blur.
“It’s wild to believe [I’m a senior]. That first year kind of went by slow for whatever reason. I had never been anywhere for a long time. I went to high school for two years in Dallas, two years of high school in Connecticut, played a year of junior and then went off to college. So my first year or two here, I felt like I was getting ready to move on again, so it’s kind of been a unique situation where I’ve been somewhere for a long time, gotten to really know the school, the system and the coaches,” Smith said.
But after spending his freshman year getting fully acclimated to the nuances of college hockey, he made big strides in his sophomore season despite the aforementioned hip issues and even contemplated turning pro. However that’s a decision he’s glad he didn’t make.
“I really contemplated leaving after my sophomore year and looking back it just would have been a dumb decision. I’m glad I stuck it out my four years. [It’s taught me] maturity on and off the ice, the way I see the game, the amount I’ve added to my game defensively and offensively. I shoot the puck more, have learned how to create scoring chances so I can score more and where to go to score goals,” Smith said. “I think if I would have left early, I really wouldn’t have become as well of a rounded player as I am now. So, overall it will be a huge stepping stone for me moving up to the next level and I think it will be an easier transition now that I’m 23-years-old. I’m mature and ready to take on that next step.”
So, is he ready for professional hockey? His coach certainly thinks so.
“At the end of the day, I think what it comes down to for Austin is he’s really got a great skill set. He’s a very smart player. He’s got all the tools, but he’s just put the work ethic ahead of everything else. Day in and day out, he’s one of the hardest-working guys on the ice. You put that skill set together with that work ethic and you have an opportunity to clearly have the kind of year that he’s having,” Vaughan said. “He’s having a very special year by all standards.”
Jackson also sees an incredibly high upside with Smith. But as is the case with every prospect, he still sees parts of his game that continue to warrant improvement. “He’s pretty good at a lot of things but like a lot of young kids, he has to learn how to play without the puck to get to the next level. I think to go to the next level, he just needs to gain some experience and see where that takes him,” he said.
However, what might be most impressive about this Stars prospect is that he has been so successful despite having a frame at 5-foot-10 that many naysayers think is a bit too small to handle the rigors of pro hockey, especially at the higher levels.
Instead of letting those detractors get him down, Smith has used their concerns as motivation to work even harder and to continue improving every facet of his game.
“Yeah, I’ve heard it many times. Most people have told me along the way I’m too small or I don’t way enough or I need to bulk up or whatever the case may be. It’s all about your compete level. It’s all about your heart and how much you want it. I think that I’ve proven that no matter what the circumstances are, I can get the job done,” he said.
Smith added: “The game’s just all about your compete level and your energy level. There’s plenty of examples in the show of guys who can get the job done. I try to tune that out and just do what the trainers and whatever coaching staff does to help me out and other than that, my job is to compete and make it happen. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what I can do to make myself better. That’s really what it’s all about.”