For hockey players, dealing with bumps and bruises comes with the territory. But sometimes to play the game they love, they’re forced to skate through more than being black and blue.
Just ask Ben Smith.
After a 2011-12 campaign that started with a concussion and came to an early close with season-ending surgery for a hernia and torn hip labrum, the Rockford IceHogs forward has a renewed appreciation for skating at 100 percent.
“I’m just grateful for every day that I can go out on the ice and feel good and feel like I can take a few strides and not have a little pain. For awhile, I kind of forgot what it felt like to be pain-free skating,” Smith said.
The Injury Bug
Coming off a 2010-11 postseason that saw him score three goals for the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, Smith appeared poised to open the 2011-12 campaign with Chicago; until a concussion suffered in the Blackhawks final preseason game presented the winger with his first setback of the season.
Smith recovered from the concussion and reported to Rockford, where he tallied 31 points (15g-16a) and led the squad with eight power play goals over 38 contests, in addition to skating in 13 games with the Blackhawks.
But just because Smith had put the concussion behind him, didn’t mean the season was smooth sailing.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the nagging hip injury actually happened, but Smith played his last game of the season on March 3 in Peoria, missing the final 17 games of the season after undergoing surgery for a torn hip labrum and hernia.
“Hockey players have hip problems. The nature of what we do is pretty unnatural for the body, so it’s hard to tell when exactly the problem started,” Smith said. “Mid-December right before Christmas is when I started feeling symptoms of something going on.”
During those months of skating through the injury, Smith’s approach remained the same.
“When something’s nagging on you that prevents you from being at the top of your game, it’s always difficult,” Smith said. “You have to bring your best effort every day, no matter what that is. Show up with a positive attitude and work hard, no matter what the circumstances are.
“I wasn’t feeling 100 percent. There was nothing that I could do about it. All I could do was bring a good attitude and my best effort every day,” Smith added.
While 2011-12 may have been the most injury riddled season Smith has faced in his career, it wasn’t his first experience skating through pain.
The winger tweaked a groin in August of his junior season at Boston College and learned in November that he had a torn groin and hernia on his left side.
“I played that whole year with a torn groin, which wasn’t easy because mentally it’s tough when you’re not 100 percent. To play a full season like that was difficult,” Smith said.
But Smith learned an important lesson from that season.
He credits his parents’ encouragement and Boston College Head Coach Jerry York’s positive attitude and reminder that everyone plays hurt sometime in their career for that lesson.
York pointed out that experience playing through the bumps and bruises would help Smith down the road.
“That was something that I drew from last year. You can still be productive, you can still make a difference, even when you’re not skating 100 percent or feeling 100 percent,” Smith said.
Smith skated in 37 games for the Eagles that season, tallying 17 points (6g-11a) one year after notching 50 point (25g-25a) in 44 games as a sophomore.
“I wasn’t putting up the numbers or contributing to the team in other ways as well as I wanted to,” Smith said.
“I’ve always had a solid work ethic, I’d like to think. Being a part of a team always helps – guys that you can lean on and who support you,” Smith added. “It’s all helped me a lot to bounce back. I love hockey. I love the game. Unfortunately, sometimes you have some obstacles. But I like to think that in the long run, if you stick to it, things will pay off.”
Playing through the pain in 2011-12 was one thing, but rehabbing and getting his hockey groove back for the 2012-13 campaign was something different.
Full Speed Ahead
Smith spent May and June rehabbing his hip, a schedule that consisted of approximately three hours of rehab four days a week. From there, he transitioned to a more typical offseason routine of skating and training, electing to spend the summer in Chicago to work with Blackhawks’ Strength and Conditioning Coach Paul Goodman and Skating and Skills Development Coach Kevin Delaney.
“Being in Chicago made it a little easier because I was able to work with Paul Goodman and work with Kevin (Delaney) whenever we had ice, which was pretty much whenever we wanted,” Smith said. “It definitely helped me out big time.”
But all the training and skating in the offseason is no comparison to being in game shape. Despite feeling like his hip was 100 percent to start the campaign, Smith said it took about three weeks into the season to feel like things were really clicking.
“There’s something about being in hockey shape that you just can’t really simulate in the summer,” Smith said.
“It’s more instinctive than anything. Knowing position, where to be, where pucks are going to go, react to certain situations. Not playing for a long time, you kind of get out of that routine and that rhythm, so being able to get back into that and be able to read situations better and anticipate passes and plays, that’s been helpful for me,” Smith added.
IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent agrees it took Smith some time to find his scoring touch, pinpointing mid November as the date when things started to click for his alternate captain.
Through the first 12 games of the season, Smith notched three points on three goals. But in 23 games since November 14, the winger has tallied 22 points (11g-11a), including four game-winning markers.
“He had two surgeries. And it’s never easy to come back from never mind one surgery, but two. Then it’s just timing and finding your hands and the speed of the game,” Dent said. “He keeps himself in really good shape, so it was just a matter of him finding his touch around the net.”
For Smith, a return to the top of his game is about more than just putting up impressive numbers, though.
“I’ve never been a person who puts that much value in points and goals,” Smith said. “It’s nice to score and it’s nice to contribute offensively, but there’s so much more to the game of hockey than just goals and assists. There’s so many little things that I try to take pride in that lead to victories.”
Named an alternate captain by Dent in early November, Smith’s goals for the season are more focused on team success than any personal milestone. And he relishes his distinct role.
“I’ve always kind of felt like an older guy on this team, even last year because the team was so young. To be given that honor is special,” Smith said. “I just try to encourage the guys to be positive every day and not be too high, not be too low, but really just enjoy what we do.”
And Dent hasn’t been disappointed by Smith’s leadership performance.
“He’s just a mature kid,” Dent said. “He’s very professional. He’s very respectful of everybody that he comes in touch with, and he’s just a great example for his teammates and everyone around him.”
But it’s more than just the opportunity to wear the "A" or the fact that he’s finally feeling and skating 100 percent now that’s making 2012-13 an enjoyable season for Smith.
“Winning makes things fun. Nobody wants to lose. I think the potential we have this year makes this group fun,” Smith said. “Potential is potential. That doesn’t give you wins and losses. Effort, work, commitment gives you wins. We’re excited.”
With the IceHogs in the battle for the top spot in the Midwest Division and a healthy Smith helping lead the Hogs offensive charge, it’s easy to understand why the 2012-13 season would be more fun for the winger.
But the improved circumstances haven’t changed Smith’s perspective.
“If you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, you shouldn’t do it,” Smith said. “Being healthy is nice, but just being able to play the game that I really enjoy playing and do it for a living is pretty special.”