by Doug Plagens | AHL On The Beat Archive
Colin Smith wasn’t in the Lake Erie Monsters lineup when the team hit the ice for a road game on November 30th at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, and it marked the first time since Smith turned professional during the 2013-14 season that the Monsters were set to play a game without the skilled 21-year-old forward.
The reason for Smith’s absence was a valid one, though: He was out of the lineup in anticipation of a call-up to the Colorado Avalanche, which would be his first trip to the National Hockey League.
Smith was ticketed to make his NHL debut the following night in Denver against the Montreal Canadiens. Overall, the feeling for Smith was what any aspiring NHLer would imagine.
“It was pretty special. There were a lot of emotions the whole day. To be able to find a way to get there – pretty much your whole life – to get to that point, I was really grateful for the opportunity. To be able to share it with family – my parents, cousin, and aunt were able to make it there – it was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” said Smith, who claimed that eventually, his debut did start to feel like any other midseason hockey game.
“Everything is so surreal leading up to the game. Warmups were the welcome to the NHL moment when you see the atmosphere,” Smith said. “Once you’re able to get out of warmups and feel the puck, you realize it’s a regular game and settle in.”
Smith’s first NHL call-up was a one-game stint before returning to the Monsters, but it didn’t halt his momentum in the American Hockey League. Smith jumped back into the Monsters lineup, and proceeded to notch points in three straight contests. Through 22 games this season, Smith is tied for the team lead in goals with six, and is tied for the team lead in scoring with 16 points. As a rookie last season, Smith was the only Monster to suit up in all 76 games, and in a strong finish, totaled 15 points in the Monsters’ final 22 games of 2013-14.
While achieving his NHL dream has always been his goal, Smith notes that the day-to-day process needs to be kept in perspective. Overall, 10 different players have seen game action for both the Monsters and Avalanche this season.
“It’s hard when you just start focusing on getting to the NHL because there’s so much that goes into that, and so much that’s out of your control. It’s been the same my whole hockey career, in junior and pro: You just focus on yourself and you come to the work and try to work on your game,” Smith said. “It’s fun. We’re playing hockey as a job; that’s a dream job itself. To work to get to that level, and then to get rewarded and get to see what it’s like… I’m going to use that even more now to work on my game because I want to try and get back there.”
Smith entered the professional ranks on the heels of a 41-goal, 106-point season for the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers, but the 192nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft has always felt like he had something to prove.
“It’s just part of my makeup. When I was in junior, then going in the seventh round in a draft, probably the single-most thing that stuck with me throughout my career was trying to prove people wrong," he said. "A lot of people think I’m smaller. I’m constantly trying to work on my game to show that I can play, and every opportunity I get I want to make the most of. It’s fun to play the game, and to get better."
“I watched him as a young kid when he was a bantam, and he was a pretty special player, and then he was able to be similar in junior hockey," said Monsters coach Dean Chynoweth. "The one thing throughout that entire stretch and through the last year and a bit has been his work ethic. I’d say he’s a 24/7 hockey guy; he loves being at the rink. He’s one of the guys that comes each day to improve on his game."
Smith’s objective this season: To try and build on his rookie season, and establish himself in the professional game.
“Last year was my first year and things were okay, but I’m constantly learning. I just want to solidify myself as a guy who can be counted on for offense, who can be strong defensively, and add some energy and tenacity to the lineup,” said Smith.
“Each year, Colin has wanted to take that next step. He worked hard for the call-up, and you never know when that opportunity might come, so now he has a taste of that, and something that he can build on,” Chynoweth said.
Overall, Smith’s mindset is simple: He’s excited to play hockey for a living.
“This is an awesome job, an awesome opportunity, and you need to enjoy it," he said. "That’s what I’m trying to do, to come to the rink with a good attitude, to try and get better, and to follow that dream to get to the NHL."