STOCKHOLM – There are probably a million Mike Smiths in phone books around the world, but there is only one Mike Smith who is Canada’s goalie in Stockholm. And, he might well be the same Mike Smith who will be Canada’s starting goalie in Sochi. His rise to the top has been long, surprising, and impressive in every way imaginable.
Smith made his debut on Sunday night for Canada in a 3-2 shootout loss to Switzerland. The 31-year-old looked just as poised and solid as he has the last two seasons in the NHL, during which time he has played 101 of the Phoenix Coyotes’ 130 games.
“I played in a couple of Loto Cups, which is a smaller tournament, but on a stage this size, tonight was my first go,” he started. “Obviously not the outcome we were looking for, but we can build on it.”
Smith faced 28 shots in 65 minutes of game action and another eight during the shootout, and he looked fully confident in the crease.
“As the game went on I felt more comfortable out there,” he agreed. “Obviously, on a bigger rink, it’s a little different to play on, but I felt good and I just tried to give the team a chance to win.”
Just as a defenceman has to be aware of the extra width on the European ice, a goalie also has to make adjustments as well.
“I just have to be more patient,” Smith explained. “There are more plays that happen from the outside that don’t happen in North America, so you spend more time on your feet. You have to be able to read more plays coming across the ice. You have to let the puck come to you.”
Watch Smith for even a few minutes and you will notice one quality of the game that separates him from most goalies. He is a great puckhandler, the best at these World Championship by a wide margin. Smith loves to come of his net out to play the puck, a skill he sees as critical to success, even on the bigger ice where his wanderings might take him farther from the crease.
“I want to get out of the crease as much as I can and help the team,” he admitted. “I try to make decisive plays and get the puck out of our end and into their end. That’s where we’re going to score the goals.”
Smith’s invitation to represent Canada at the World Championship has “improbable” written all over it. He played junior hockey in Kingston and Sudbury, and then in the summer of 2002, undrafted by any NHL team and 20 years old, he signed on with the Lexington Men O’ War in the ECHL.
From that league come few NHLers period, and star NHLers are even a rarer breed of ECHL graduate. In his first pro game with the Men O’ War, Smith recorded a double as rare as any in the game. Not only did he register a shutout – he also scored a goal.
Smith persevered, and before the end of the season he was in the AHL, where he remained for the next four years. He made the Dallas Stars in 2006 as backup to Marty Turco and even lived with Turco for a while, but he was never considered anything more than a decent option when Turco needed a rest.
Smith was traded in February 2008 to Tampa Bay in the deal which brought Brad Richards to the Stars, but again over the next four seasons he was backup to Dwayne Roloson among others.
Then, in the summer of 2011, the free agent signed a life-changing, two-year contract with the Coyotes, who were in need of a number-one goalie. Smith fit the bill based on his play, and has never looked back.
And now, given Canada’s dearth of great goalies, he finds himself at age 31 in the enviable position of being a legitimate candidate for the country’s Olympic team.
“Any time you play for your country, I think it’s a dream come true, whether it’s in the Olympics or World Championships, whatever,” he continued. “I have a great opportunity to showcase what I can do over here on the international stage, and I hope I can turn a few heads.”
The head he most has to turn is likely executive director Steve Yzerman, who will make the tough decisions for Sochi if the NHL goes to the Olympics. More impressive, though, is Smith’s rise, something that he has accomplished through determination above all else.
“It’s an endurance race, not a sprint for goaltenders,” he said with a good-natured chuckle. “There are some young kids who come in and do it right away but for the most part you see goalies come into their prime around 30. I’m no different from that. I’ve been a good fit in Phoenix and I had a great goaltending coach there who gave me confidence. I just go out every night and try to give the team a chance.”
Ah, yes, confidence. If you have it, you thrive; if you don’t, you wither.
“Confidence is a huge thing,” he admitted. “Just getting the opportunity to play is huge. I’ve never really been given the ball to run with the way I have in Phoenix. They’ve showed confidence in me. That’s half the battle. I’ve had a coaching staff that’s had confidence in me. That makes the game a lot easier. I’ve done some little things technically, but they’re not huge changes to my game. The confidence in huge.”
And that confidence, combined with a good tournament in Sweden and a strong start to the 2013/2014 season, might well land the Men O’ War alumnus a spot in the Olympics.