photo courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs
The following is the piece published in Tuesday night’s issue of The Committed Indian, the official~unofficial Chicago Blackhawks home game night program, which you can buy individual copies or subscribe to at this link.
By Chris Block
You have to focus on what’s right in front of you and I think at that moment … I was focused on winning two points against Grand Rapids and fortunately that night we did. –Ben Smith
With the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining dispute having been settled and NHL training camps set to commence in less than three days, Blackhawks prospect Ben Smith took to the BMO Harris Bank Center ice in Rockford on January 11th to face off with the IceHogs division-rival, and Detroit Red Wings farm team, the Grand Rapids Griffins.
At this time Smith was the IceHogs’ leader in goals scored, game-winning goals, a member of both the first-team power play and penalty killing units and among the top three forwards in ice time on a nightly basis.
And on a team up to that point which couldn’t help itself but take careless or undisciplined minor penalty after minor penalty, Smith had just 4 penalty minutes on the season and had not stepped foot in the penalty box since mid October. That’s quite the accomplishment for the gritty and tenacious two-way forward Ben Smith is.
Five days earlier, Blackhawks upper management made the call to pull four of its players from the IceHogs roster who were staying active in Rockford during the lockout. Nick Leddy, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw and enforcer Brandon Bollig were all unofficially recalled from Rockford on January 7th, one day after Gary Bettman and NHLPA head Don Fehr stood together to announce their truce. The decision was made that these four would be integral pieces to the Blackhawks roster and thus they would be pulled from Rockford’s three games that week before the new CBA was ratified officially by both sides and NHL opened for training camps on January 14th.
Left out of the initial group of recalls was Ben Smith. The omission mystified most regular observers of Rockford IceHogs hockey. Smith had been Rockford’s most versatile, disciplined and consistent all-around forward who IceHogs head coach Ted Dent trusts in any situation. Smith plays either wing and was better on faceoffs than most of the IceHogs (and Blackhawks for that matter) centers.
When asked about being left out of that group of four after the IceHogs game on January 9th, Ben Smith was introspective, although you could sense his disappointment.
“I’ve learned now that if you find yourself thinking about it, or hoping for it — it doesn’t come or it throws you off your game,” Smith said after a January 9th game.
“So, for me, my thoughts are all with what’s going on [in Rockford] and trying to be the best player I can be – and help this team win any way I can.”
Two nights later, still the alternate captain and unquestioned leader of the IceHogs, Ben Smith lived by his words.
Three quarters of the way through the second period of a tied game with Grand Rapids, Smith was where you can typically find him in the offensive zone, battling for position in front of the opposition’s goal.
On this occasion, Smith outworked 6-foot 4-inch defenseman Brennan Evans for position in front of Grand Rapids’s net. After the whistle, Evans cross-checked Smith in the neck. Smith, who is 5-11, challenged Evans and the two dropped their gloves.
The fight wasn’t much. Smith got a few right hands in but it was mostly wrestling for more space to throw bigger haymakers. However, during the scrum, Smith got his left hand caught in Brennan Evan’s shoulder pads and fractured the bone above his left thumb.
Though Smith immediately knew something was wrong, between periods he was told to keep playing. He did, returning to the ice in the third period to set up Brandon Saad for the game-winning goal on a beautiful cross-ice centering pass – with a fractured left hand.
After the game it was determined Smith’s hand would need at least 3-4 weeks to heal and it would be set in a hard cast – meaning he would miss out on the Blackhawks abbreviated training camp and a chance to earn a spot on the NHL roster.
While there was no guarantee Smith would have made the Blackhawks, there’s certainly an argument to be made he would bring consistently more to the table than Jamal Mayers, Michael Frolik or Smith’s good friend Brandon Bollig.
While Brandon Saad has been very good with the Blackhawks thus far and has yet to show signs of the stretches enigmatic and listless play which plagued the IceHogs at times, the fact is Saad may not have been in Blackhawks camp, or made the team had it not been for Smith’s injury. Prior to the January 11th game that Smith suffered his hand fracture, Saad had just 1 goal and 4 assists in the IceHogs previous 15 games.
Financially, the difference between playing for the IceHogs and the Blackhawks is a difference of making $3,800 or $20,000 per week for Smith.
This isn’t Smith’s first episode of tough luck when it comes to making the jump to the NHL level. He all but had a roster spot secured prior to the 2011-12 season (after an impressive stint with the Blackhawks the prior Spring) when a brutal Brendan Smith flying forearm smash gave the Blackhawks’ Smith a concussion during a preseason game at the United Center. When he recovered three weeks later he was sent to Rockford.
Ben Smith was also in line for a call up late last season when he suffered a hip injury and sports hernia while playing in a March 3rd game at Peoria that caused him to miss the remainder of the season.
While this most recent setback has been said by some close to Smith to have hit him harder than priors, Smith told us this past weekend that he doesn’t regret his decision to fight Evans.
“I wouldn’t say I regret it all,” Smith said. “It’s just part of the game – something that happened. It may not have been the best time for my first fight. But, you have to stand up for yourself and I did that at that moment. And it is what it is.”
At that moment in the game, Smith wasn’t just standing up for himself by fighting Evans. Smith took on a guy five inches taller at a time in the game when his IceHogs teammates had become flat and Grand Rapids had decidedly took momentum of a 1-1 game.
Smith just wasn’t fighting for pride, he successfully sparked his team.
“Yeah, especially when a guy who doesn’t fight a lot does that – the guys were excited about it,” Smith said about the shift in momentum after his fight. “You know, you have to focus on what’s right in front of you and I think at that moment that’s what I was focused on. I was focused on winning two points against Grand Rapids and fortunately that night we did.”
And even with that injured hand, Smith came out for the third period and led his team to a 5-2 victory over Grand Rapids.
“He’s definitely a real leader on this team,” said IceHogs defenseman and alternate captain Ryan Stanton. “He’s been great on the ice (and) off the ice. He definitely sets the standards high for work ethic.”
Despite missing five and a half weeks of the season, Ben Smith sits in a tie for the 2nd-most goals on the IceHogs with 17, behind Martin St. Pierre, Jimmy Hayes and Jeremy Morin, who all have 19. Smith’s 5 game-winning goals are second to only Brandon Pirri’s 6. His 7 power play tallies (tied with Jimmy Hayes) ranks second in that category behind Morin’s team-leading 9 goals with the man advantage. Also, Smith’s +6 plus/minus rating trails only Klas Dahlbeck, who leads all Rockford skaters with a plus-8 rating. Smith’s 17.9 percent shooting percentage is best on the IceHogs.
Smith has a knack for scoring at key times or making a profound impact on the game. Every one of his 17 goals has either brought Rockford within a goal, tied the game, given the IceHogs the lead or a two-goal advantage. Smith is a clutch scorer and when he scores, Rockford typically comes away the victor. The IceHogs are 10-4 when the BC grad scores at least one goal.
“Everyone follows him,” says Stanton. “He works hard both on and off the ice. So he’s been huge for the team and he’s valuable in a lot of aspects of the game.”
Smith returned to the IceHogs lineup on February 22nd, after missing fifteen games. He returned in the midst of Rockford’s recent six-game winning streak, which was snapped by Milwaukee this past Saturday night. Ted Dent eased Smith back into the lineup, but by his second game back he was back on both special teams units.
“It’s always taken Smitty two or three games to get going after an injury. He just has that make up,” said IceHogs coach Ted Dent.
Last Friday against Peoria, Smith scored twice in a 4-1 win over the Rivermen. It was his third game back.
“He’s always in great shape,” Dent said. “But now it’s coordinating his feet with his hands and his mind at the same time. And to get a couple goals [Friday] night, to get his confidence (back), I think really helped. And he seems to be doing real good as he comes back here.”
Smith agreed with his coach’s sentiments when asked how he was feeling jumping back into the thick of the IceHogs’ push to get back into playoff contention.
“Good. Better this weekend than last weekend,” said Smith. “It’s nice. I’m kind of easing into things. Obviously, I wish we had more games right now. I’ll just keep working hard and I’ll get back to where I was.”
Recently there have been debates in other forums, and even in this publication, about whether or not fighting can have an impact on the outcome of a game, or shift in momentum. When asked if a fight can do those things, Smith decisively says yes.
“Absolutely. There are certain times for a fight, obviously when someone gets hit and someone has to stand up for him.
“Also, it can be huge at home to change momentum,” Smith continued. “And even on the road – just to get guys going. There’s certainly a place. Its just at certain times it’s necessary. I think its part of the game that will probably stay for awhile.”
While now in the unenviable position of waiting for a player on the Blackhawks roster, and perhaps even a friend, to be injured or fall out of favor, Smith’s focus remains on the task immediately at hand – helping the Rockford IceHogs make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The IceHogs have not won a playoff game since they took the Chicago Wolves to a seventh and deciding game in 2008, Rockford’s first season in the AHL.
Smith turns 25 in July. Prior to this season, he signed a two-year contract with Chicago that pays him $575,000 no matter where he plays next season. Barring any more tough luck, odds are it will finally be for the Blackhawks.