Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart athletic dept.
Jason Smith waited.
SHU senior netminder Jason Smith hopes a pro career is just around the corner.
At the time, the 17-year old St. Lambert, Quebec native questioned his future and wondered about his lifelong dream. He waited some more. Then finally received confirmation through the Internet that the New Jersey Devils had used their sixth round pick on him in 2003.
"I was away from home when I found out," says the Sacred Heart University goaltender, now completing his senior season. "I was so happy that I took a couple looks on the screen just to make sure it was really me. Something like that changes a life."
Smith knew he had a shot at becoming a prospect in the draft because of the handful of prior interviews with NHL organizations, but it took some time to sink in that he was the first player from the Quebec Junior A league to be selected.
But once again, Smith had to wait.
The 6'1" netminder signed to leave his home in Canada and come to the United States to play hockey for Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah.
"I knew I wanted to play hockey in the United States when I was young, but also knew the chances were slim considering the number of good hockey players," says Smith. "I knew that Quebec goalies are something that a lot of United States teams look for, so that upped my chances."
However, there was a catch.
The Pioneers were a winning team with a roster that included star goaltender and fellow Quebec native Kevin LaPointe. That meant Smith would be unable to display the talents that caught all the eyes of professional scouts and teams on a regular basis -- at least right away. He played only five games in his first year at SHU, but made a school-record 54 saves against Providence College, a solid program in the powerhouse Hockey East conference, in his collegiate debut.
"It was tough to sit at first, " admits Smith. "But I was able to learn from [LaPointe] a lot. He taught me a lot about the mental aspects of the game and he always reminded me my time would come. Right now, I am acting as he did [with current Pioneer back-up and next year's starter Stefan Drew]."
LaPointe graduated two years later and was invited to try out for the Detroit Red Wings, but was unable to crack the regular roster.
Patience Is a Virtue
From Smith's point of view. The waiting game had finally ended and the opportunity to play his game had begun. Scouts saw the 2005-2006 Sacred Heart team as a legitimate Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) championship contender, but on one condition: Smith would have to respond under fire in between the pipes. In the end, that skepticism proved to be unfounded.
After posting an 18-11-1 record and a 2.24 goals against average (tops in Atlantic Hockey and 13th in the nation), Smith was ranked 8th in the country in save percentage. He was named Goaltender of the Week four times by Atlantic Hockey as well as being selected first-team all-conference. He even tied his own record of 54 saves against Mercyhurst on Jan. 28, 2006. However, SHU's postseason aspirations fell far short of expectations when UConn, a lower seed, ousted the Pioneers from the league playoffs in the first round of the playoffs. That left with a sour taste in their mouths all the way through the summer and fall of 2006.
But Smith and the Pioneers look at the 2006-2007 season as their shot at redemption. The Pioneers have locked up the top seed in the AHA playoffs. Smith has recorded a 12-7-3 tally and a stellar 2.87 goals against average as of Feb. 8. Perhaps most intriguing, he was recognized as honorable mention National Player of the Month for December, when he posted five straight games of allowing just one goal.
While Sacred Heart is poised to erase any bad memories from last campaign, Smith finds himself in a waiting mode once again - this time, to see if he will be packing his bags to St. Louis on April 6 for the NCAA Frozen Four Skills Challenge. Smith is one of 89 finalists, but fans are currently voting to shave that number to a final 32. His SHU teammate and Hobey Baker nominee, Pierre-Luc O'Brien is also on the list. Whether or not makes the final cut for the Skills Challenge, his ultimate goal remains the same as it was as a teenager while he waited for his Internet browser to load faster, and the same as it was as a young boy.
"I want to play in the NHL," he said. "If I would have said my starting year that I would be drafted by the Devils, some people may have laughed at me. Maybe if I said it now, people would react the same way. It only depends on how much time and effort I put into it."
The dream may come true someday, but after his heralded tenure at Sacred Heart is over, he will have to wait yet again.
"I obviously won't be in the NHL next year unless Marty Brodeur and other goalies in the system have catastrophic injuries," he says. "But the AHL or ECHL are good to develop goalies. The Lowell Devils (AHL affiliate) and the Trenton Devils (soon-to-be ECHL affiliate) are great organizations and I will do my best to work up the ladder."
Should he make the Lowell roster, Smith would be making regular trips to the area next year to play against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at The Arena at Harbor Yard. Ever the realist, Smith understands that hockey is an international game, and that opportunities could lead him overseas, as well.
"If my career in America stagnates over the next few years, Europe is a great option too," he adds. "I'm thinking of the Deutsch Elite League in Germany and some other strong leagues in Switzerland and Sweden. If I have that opportunity, I will seize it. It kind of compromises my chances to make it in the NHL, but it's a price to pay."
Sometimes it seems that for Smith, the waiting game is endless. But considering his track record, waiting can be a devil of a good time.
- Connecticut collegiate hockey fans should circle 2009 on their calendars, when the NCAA East Regional tournament will be co-hosted by Yale and Fairfield Universities and held at The Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. The winner will advance to the Frozen Four, which will be held MCI Center in Washington, DC, in 2009.
- Smith's predecessor between the pipes at SHU, Kevin LaPointe, played for the Muskegon Fury of the United Hockey League in the 2005-2006 campaign, but has since retired.
Brian Fitzsimmons is the sports editor for Sacred Heart University's student newspaper, The Spectrum, and also serves as an intern The Connecticut Post. He is a regular contributor to Inside Connecticut Sports. Brian will be a key member of Inside Connecticut Sports' team coverage of the upcoming Metro Atlantic Athetic Conference Championships in Bridgeport.