Smolenak’s hard work paying dividends

by Dave Whigham and Keith Phillips || AHL On The Beat Archive

smolenak2_200.jpg Vince Lombardi once said, “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”

Norfolk Admirals left wing Radek Smolenak has worked hard this season and is beginning to achieve his goals.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted Smolenak in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, they expected him to be an offensive leader in the organization. After all, in his final two seasons of junior hockey with the Kingston Frontenacs (OHL), Smolenak netted 74 goals and 144 points in 132 games.

However, the adjustment to the professional ranks did not come easy to Smolenak. His rookie pro season consisted of only one point in 20 games at the American Hockey League level and 35 points in 43 games in the ECHL. He began this season with two games with the Norfolk Admirals before being sent to the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves. His assignment: he needed to work harder.

“Radek is a really skilled guy with good hands,” said Admirals head coach Steve Stirling. “What he didn’t do last year and at the start of this year was battle. He went to Mississippi and worked at it enough to get a chance to come back to us and play.”

“When I got sent down, I was a little disappointed,” said Smolenak, a 21-year old native of Prague, Czech Republic. “It was then that I realized how much it takes to stay in the league. I continued to work hard but I learned how to handle my emotion. I learned how hard you have to work on every shift; I’ll just do what it takes to win.”

After 15 points in 19 games with the Sea Wolves, Smolenak returned to Norfolk with the intensity and battle level that Stirling had desired. Admirals fans also noticed something else – Smolenak’s willingness to drop the gloves.

“When he raised his intensity level and decided to battle without the puck along the wall, there was a lot more body contact,” Stirling said. “He discovered that he was okay with that and he would have to fight once in a while.”

“Nobody wants to fight, but you do what you have to do to stay on the ice,” said Smolenak. “The harder you play the more physical you become. I want to play and if being physical means staying on the ice, then that’s what I will continue to do.”

smolenak_200.jpg Smolenak’s play with the gloves on was solid, but the goals were not going in – that is, until a mid-January trade that saw center Paul Szczechura and winger Junior Lessard brought to Norfolk.

 “I don’t know why I put him on that line but it clicked,” said Stirling. “By that time, Radek had really figured it out – he was playing with more confidence. Then the goals started to go in for him and he played really well.”

Szczechura and Lessard arrived in Norfolk on Jan. 15. Smolenak had not scored a goal in his prior 37 career AHL games between the Admirals and 2006-07 Springfield Falcons. Since that time, he leads Norfolk with 13 goals in 31 games.

“He’ll probably finish the season with 15 goals in basically half of a season, which is not bad,” said Stirling. “He’s got to play with talent – with skilled guys. Playing with Szczechura really gave him a lift. Throw in Lessard on the other side who also can make a play and who’s really smart and I think they elevated Radek’s game. If you can get him playing with guys like that, the chance for him to build off of this year and do even better is certainly there.”

If you projected Smolenak’s pace from the last 31 games over a full 80-game AHL schedule, Smolenak would score 33 goals – easily leading the current squad in goal scoring. With those numbers in mind and the lessons learned this season, Admirals fans certainly have much to look forward to from their newest power forward.

“I’ve just learned to never take any shift off and to be physical. It’s all about working hard and the results will come. Now that I’m here, I’m making sure that I stay here.”

The Lightning certainly hope that the hard work Smolenak has put in this season and will continue to do in the future will transform the potential offensive leader they saw three summers ago into a regular on the Tampa Bay left wing.