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Divided attention: Smith in limbo between NHL, AHL

03/08/2012 3:39 PM -

From Redeye Chicago by Ryan Smith: (link)

Ben Smith isn't exactly homeless, but you might call him a drifter of sorts.

The sometimes-Blackhawks-rookie sleeps in a regular bed every night in Rockford, and he manages a decent job cooking for himself on a small, two-burner stove in his modest Candelwood Suites studio. Yet, if you ask where he calls home, Smith quickly says Connecticut, even though he hasn't been to the Constitution State since a Christmas visit with his family.

The soft-spoken 23-year-old winger's semi-nomadic lifestyle is hardly a conscious life choice--he wasn't planning on wandering the earth like Forrest Gump. Instead, his life in limbo is the product of his quest to permanently join the Blackhawks, who have sent Smith down to the AHL's Rockford IceHogs five times and recalled him to the NHL on four different occasions this season.

"We joke and kind of tease him that we never really know what team he plays for," said just-traded former IceHogs captain Brandon Segal.

There is one small silver lining for Smith--he's becoming an expert at navigating Illinois highways in his Hyundai Sonata hybrid.

"Yep, I'm getting to know I-90 really, really well," said Smith of the 85-plus-mile route between Chicago and Rockford.

It hasn't been the easiest of seasons for Smith.

Expectations were high for him after a rookie debut late last season in which he scored three goals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Vancouver. His crowning moment came in Game 6, when Smith knocked in the dramatic, game-winning goal against Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.

"It was a dream come true," said Smith of his memorable shot. "I was really excited to be a part of that."

But before he could show the Hawks he could work the same magic again this season, Smith was decked late in the preseason by a vicious--and illegal--hit to the head by Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith, who was slapped with an eight-game suspension.

The Hawks' budding star suffered a concussion, and he missed valuable time recovering before returning to Rockford for several games.

Smith was called up by the Hawks in November, but in the three months since then he's struggled, scoring two goals in 13 games while playing musical chairs in the Chicago lineup. Smith has now been back in the AHL since Jan. 25.

Those trips back to the IceHogs have been difficult for Smith.

"Every time I drive to Rockford, I think about what I could have done better and what I can do to improve," he said. "Anytime you experience something that I did (last season), you want that, and anytime you are sent down, you're upset."

But it hasn't hurt his AHL game. This season in Rockford, he's scored 14 goals (third on the team), with 14 assists for 28 points (sixth on the team).

IceHogs coach Ted Dent has seen the toll the AHL-NHL shuffle can take on players but said Smith is dealing with it well.

"Going up and down like Ben has, that's one of the toughest things with players in the AHL--the mental part of it," said Dent, who's in his first season as IceHogs head coach and fifth with the team. "They think they've made it when they go the NHL and as soon as you're confident and think you're going to stick, you get sent down. Sometimes it takes three, four or five days to deal with it. You gotta work hard and try to get back. He understands that though.

"For Ben, it's tough because he hasn't felt settled all year. He says he doesn't mind it, but over time it can wear it on you. It's February, and he's been living in a hotel since September. It's one of the tough part about sports."

Smith knows his situation comes with the territory, though.

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