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On the Up and Up

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

Dallas Stars prospect Austin Smith has thought about what it will be like to play in his first NHL game. As a Dallas native, it would be special if his debut came at American Airlines Center.

Smith skating for Colgate during his collegiate career

“I can’t wait, especially as a local kid,” Smith said. “I’m going to hope we sell that one out. I think we should. That would be pretty cool.”

Smith will move one step closer to that dream this season, turning pro after a long journey along the hockey development path. He played at Dallas Jesuit High, moved on to Gunnery Prep in Connecticut, spent a season with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League and then played four years at Colgate University in upstate New York. Now, he’s back in Texas ready to embark on the next chapter in his hockey career.

“I’m excited, being a Texas kid and coming back here,” Smith said. “I just want to work hard and work my way up.”

Smith is coming off a spectacular senior season at Colgate, leading the nation in goal scoring with 36 in 39 games. The right-handed shooting forward was among the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the top player in college hockey and is akin to hockey’s Heisman Trophy.

“It was a great year, really fun,” Smith said.

Days after wrapping up his college career, Smith began the process of furthering his hockey education by getting a head start on his pro career. He signed an entry-level contract with the Dallas Stars and then headed to Cedar Park to play for the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League.

“I think it was a good opportunity for him to play and see what that level was all about,” said Les Jackson, Dallas Stars Director of Player Personnel. “He did especially well playing for Texas. The only thing he didn’t do was score. I think it is just a matter of time; he has a history of scoring.”

Smith played 12 games with Texas, picking up three assists. But, as Jackson noted, that first goal was elusive. Smith did create plenty of chances, and had some pucks ring off the post. He’s confident he’ll find that scoring touch with time.

“You’ve got to learn the game at the next level and build your confidence. I’ve been a goal scorer in my career and once I have a couple go in, I think I’ll really take off,” he said. “You have to climb that hump to start. That’s the way it was in college. Every level I’ve jumped to, that’s what you’ve got to do to get it going.”

But the 12 games in Texas were more than just an opportunity for the 23-year-old Smith to work on finding his scoring touch at the pro level. It was a chance for Smith to get a taste of what it was like to be a professional hockey player.

“I learned what it took every day,” Smith said. “It was a unique situation. I went into a team that had no chance to make the playoffs. It was interesting to come in and see the guys that were still pushing themselves. To see that barrier of guys that were still there, pushing and striving – you see what it takes to make it to the next level. There were a couple of call-ups at the end of the season, so I was kind of immersed in the pro atmosphere. To see the work ethic, to see who shows up every day, I was soaking in everything. I was watching more than anything.”

There were adjustments on the ice as well. In college, there wasn’t a lot of structure and in the pro ranks, that’s a big part of the equation.

“It was so different from college. You’ve got to take your game to fit within their system,” Smith said. “In college, I had a lot of skill and the coaches would say, ‘take it.’ It was kind of free reign. Now that I’ve come here, you’ve got to take a step back and learn what your coaches want, how to play within the system and make yourself within the system. That’s the biggest on-ice thing. If you want to make it, you need to learn how to be versatile and you need to do what you’re told, listen and work hard.”

Smith’s work ethic and desire are two of his strongest attributes. He’s not the biggest player on the ice (5-10, 180 pounds), but he’s quick, elusive, smart, highly skilled and he’s shown he can score at every level he’s played. And the Stars are eager to see what Smith can do in his first year at the next level.

“Smitty is a determined kid. He takes everyday as a tryout,” said Jackson. “He plays hard, he wants to get better every shift, every game, everyday. He’s got a huge heart and a huge desire to be a player. He’ll be an interesting guy to watch entering his first full season in the American League.”

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