Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks
With the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs underway, Chicago Blackhawks forward Ben Smith is eager to help Chicago defend the title and make another deep run in the postseason, and hopefully raise the cup once again come mid-summer.
In his first full season in the National Hockey League with the Blackhawks, Smith has already enjoyed a good amount of success during his young hockey career, including two National Championships with Boston College (2008 and 2010) before earning his name on the cup during the Blackhawks’ latest Stanley Cup Championship (2013).
But the road to get to hockey’s highest level is never easy, and it certainly hasn’t been for the 25-year-old.
“I did go through a few ups and downs in the road to get to this level,” said Smith. “It was a little longer than I’d hoped but you go through that stuff for a reason. I feel like I was definitely mentally stronger this year going into it because of all the stuff that had happened in the past.”
Coming off a strong rookie campaign in 2010-11 with the Rockford IceHogs, in which the Avon, Conn. native had already seen some NHL regular season action, Smith continued in the postseason trying to make a name for himself. The then-22-year-old potted three goals for Chicago in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, including the game-winning tally in Game 6, before the Blackhawks were eventually ousted by the Vancouver Canucks.
The following season Smith was set to capitalize on the momentum and begin the season in Chicago, but he suffered the first setback of his career, a concussion, in the Blackhawks final preseason game on Sept. 28, 2011.
After recovering from the concussion, Smith battled back and was sent to Rockford to regain his old form. The gritty winger registered 31 points (14g-17a) for Rockford, good for fourth on the team in scoring through 58 games, until he faced another setback, this one cutting his season short. Smith underwent hip surgery to repair a torn labrum and also had to recover from a sports hernia.
But doubt of getting to that next level was never in his mind.
“It definitely got tougher every time I got injured again,” commented Smith. “You never really give up or quit, that was never even an option for me.”
Instead, the former sixth round draft choice continued to chug along. With the NHL on a work stoppage to begin the 2012-13 campaign, he continued to produce in Rockford. However, after the lockout was over, Smith was left off the list of players recalled to Chicago due to a broken thumb which he suffered a night before the lockout was lifted.
Again, the winger never let the thought of doubt creep into his mind. Instead he posted career highs with the IceHogs in goals (27), assists (20), points (47), and plus/minus rating (+17) to earn a spot with the Blackhawks during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It was always the thought of when, not if,” said Smith. “It was just a matter of the timing working out and working through the unfortunate stuff that had happened and moving forward.”
The timing finally paid off when he was thrown into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against Boston to replace an injured Marian Hossa. Despite losing the contest to the Bruins, the game allowed Smith’s name to be included among those inscribed on the Stanley Cup after the Blackhawks eventually knocked off Boston to win their second Stanley Cup in four years.
“It was fun and it was something I didn’t expect having played the whole season in Rockford last year,” said Smith. “Getting a chance to play a game in the Final there, contributing, even if it was a small amount, just being able to contribute to what happened here last season was exciting.”
The taste during the postseason definitely gave Smith an itch to help the Blackhawks return. But heading into the 2013-14 season, the goal was what it always had been, make the big club.
“For me at first it was just making the team,” said Smith. “That was a big thing, obviously. I wanted to prove that I could play at this level. I just wanted to get more experience and play more games.
Not only did Smith accomplish that goal, but he has proven to Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville that he can be a constant contributor. The winger recorded 14 goals and 12 assists in 75 games with Chicago and earned a promotion during the final month of the regular season when the Blackhawks lost Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to injury. After primarily playing on the fourth line during the season, Smith was bumped up to center the second line and he gained more responsibility with some time on the power play.
“Getting a little more opportunity, unfortunately we’ve had some injuries to some key guys and that hurts as a team for sure but it’s given some guys a little extra opportunity and a chance to prove what we can do,” said Smith. “I’ve just tried to make the most of it.”
Now, with a full NHL regular season under his belt, a repeat with a Stanley Cup Championship for Smith would be a little more special, especially considering the path to get to this point.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to go that far and get to the final. And to win again it would be special for everyone, but for me it would be a little added bonus just having played here a full year,” said Smith. “Last year, I was only able to play one game in the regular season and one in the playoffs. If I were to get that opportunity again to go that far and win again it would definitely be a little extra special.”