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Smith on track to become first Dallas-native NHLer

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars
He may be best-known as the first Dallas native to ever be selected in the NHL Entry Draft, but Austin Smith aims to take it much further than that. 

Ed Wolfstein Photo
After completing his freshman year at Colgate University in 2008-09, the 20-year-old right winger continues to improve, displaying impressive skills at the NCAA Division I level, and hopes to one day make a name for himself as a solid NHL contributor on his hometown team.

Two other Dallas-area kids were selected in the 2009 Draft last month (Chris Brown, from Flower Mound, was selected 36th overall by Phoenix, and Anthony Hamburg of the Dallas Stars AAA U-18 team went in the seventh round to Minnesota) and there will likely be more in the next couple of years, so Smith will have a little competition in his bid to become the first Metroplex-born-and-raised player to skate in the NHL.

“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,” acknowledged Smith, who compiled 17 goals and 31 points in 37 games last year at Colgate, ranking second on the squad in both categories. “You want to try to take advantage of it and try to work your way to get there some day.  I got a lot to prove, because I want to set a good example. It’s something to get drafted, but to make it is what you eventually want, to make the final step.”

Stars management has definitely been happy with Smith’s ongoing progress since they chose him in the fifth round (128th overall) in 2007, and maintain high expectations for his future.

“Smitty’s making some great strides, he’s one of the most passionate guys that I’ve been around,” stated Les Jackson, the Stars’ Director of Scouting and Player Development. “He loves to play and he’s physically getting stronger and bigger. He had a great first year at Colgate and I suspect he’ll go back and be a dominant player in that league next year. We’re really excited about his growth and his potential going ahead.”

Smith was generally satisfied with his freshman performance, although he believes he still has room to upgrade his consistency, particularly against tougher competition, and looks forward to his upcoming sophomore campaign.

“The season went very well, I thought I had a good year,” said Smith, who attended the Stars’ low-key gathering of prospects at Frisco’s Dr Pepper Arena a couple of weeks ago. “Going into the season, I set a goal, probably 25-30 points as a freshman, score 10-15 goals, and I exceeded both of those. Towards the middle of the season, I thought that I maybe could have done a little more, so in that regard, I kind of want to go back next year and have a much bigger year. Overall, I learned a lot, got better defensively, better two-way, and I learned the game a little better.”

This will actually be the first time in five years that Smith will skate for the same club two seasons in a row and he’s excited about not having to adjust to a new team, coaching style, teammates, and overall environment.

“It’ll be good - I’m still anxious to play pro, but it will be good going back,” said Smith, who played junior hockey in Canada for Penticton of the BCHL in 2007-08 and The Gunnery Prep in Connecticut the year before. “I’ll know what to expect. I think a lot of my scoring was not in our league last year, I put up double the numbers that I put up in non-conference games than I did in conference games, so I got to find that consistency next year and I think I will be able to, taking care of business in my own league. I think I’ll have a big year next year.”

One significant aspect of college hockey Smith needed to adapt to last season was the more sporadic schedule. He went from playing a 60-game regular season (and another 15 playoff contests en route to a league championship) in the BCHL, with 3-4 games a week, to practicing all week and playing games just on the weekends.

“We wound up playing 37 (games) with playoffs,” Smith said of his year at Colgate, which featured an incredible post-season performance against Quinnipiac where Smith completed a hat trick with an overtime game-winner to extend a best-of-three series Colgate eventually lost in Game 3 in OT. “My year in BC, I loved playing every day and having a game every other night. It was definitely an adjustment. I hate having to practice all week and wait to play Friday and Saturday. You just have to kind of change your mentality. To be consistent, you just have to really stay focused, because it’s not like you could have one really bad game and play again the next night or the night after, you have to really re-focus if you don’t play well and try to pull it together, because you got a whole week of practice and you can’t let your mind slide when you’re playing college.”

This coming season will be an important one for his development and the progress he displays will likely determine how much longer Smith stays in school. While it appears he still needs a couple of years of growth before he’s be ready to pull a Stars jersey over his head, it’s not out of the question that he could turn pro next summer.

“I think that depends on a lot of things,” Jackson said regarding the length of Smith’s stay in school. “That depends on him and his goal to get to the NHL or get to pro, and one thing I know, you have to be patient with these guys. He’s doing great, but he’s still a long ways from the NHL, so I sense we’ll take it a year at a time and I’m sure that’s the way he’s looking at it, too.” 

While Smith recognizes that, at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, he needs to bulk up and get stronger in order to handle bigger NHL opponents, it is an important intangible, along with his outstanding skills, that sets him apart from most other prospects.

“Austin is just one of those kids whose passion for the game, you can just see it, he just oozes it,” noted Tim Bernhardt, the Stars’ Director of Amateur Scouting. “We’re very happy with his progress. 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.” 

“He has a lot of internal desire that makes him an interesting player,” Jackson added, “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.” 

Ultimately, it is that burning desire to succeed that will be Smith’s biggest asset as he works to become the first Dallas-born player to reach the NHL and play for his hometown club.

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