Genoa native Smolinski still taking his shots in NHL

Bryan Smolinski jumps over the boards recently for a shift change with the Canadiens. He joined Montreal this season.
Bryan Smolinski jumps over the boards recently for a shift change with the Canadiens. He joined Montreal this season.

Bryan Smolinski, arguably the greatest hockey player to ever come out of northwest Ohio, almost didn't take up the sport.

Well, that would imply

Smolinski had some input in the matter.

In fact, it was his father, Tom, that first introduced the game to his son when he was three years old. Tom was looking for an organized activity for young Bryan to expend some of his seemingly infinite pool of energy.

While taking in a Toledo Goaldiggers game at the Sports Arena one evening with Bryan, Tom ran into a gentleman who suggested he sign up the rambunctious little squirt in the arena's youth hockey league.

"When he was that age, there was nothing competitive for him to play," Tom Smolinski said. "If there would have been a basketball camp or something like that, I probably would have thrown him in on that."

As fate would have it, Bryan Smolinski turned out to be quite the phenom in hockey.

The Genoa native and Cardinal Stritch graduate was drafted in the first round by Boston, 21st overall, in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft after spending four years at Michigan State.

What followed was a veritable 14-year professional career in which Smolinski, who turns 36 on Dec. 27, has played in more than 1,000 games and scored 268 goals to go with 369 assists. He's also appeared in 111 playoff games with 49 postseason points.

"Even when I was playing when I was younger, I always thought it would be so cool to do that, but for some reason, I had an early grasp on how hard it was," said Smolinski, who is now on the injury list for the Montreal Canadiens after spraining his knee Dec. 6 but should be back playing by mid-January.

"I never expected to be in the NHL. I always knew the next step was the biggest step, whether it was to a different age group or to junior hockey in Canada."

Those grandiose achievements had very humble beginnings in the Toledo Optimist Youth Hockey Association at the now-demolished Toledo Sports Arena.

"He loved it," Tom Smolinski said. "He was skating, and it was quite the ordeal. We just loved it over at the Sports Arena. There were lots of kids playing, and that's basically how he started out.

"He was a real competitive kid as a three and four-year-old. He just wanted to play sports."

Smolinski played locally until the age of 12, when he made the jump to a higher caliber of hockey with the nationally regarded Little Caesar's youth hockey organization in Detroit.

"At that time, there wasn't a whole lot of, I would say, educated hockey personnel in this area," Tom Smolinski said.

The move required plenty of family sacrifice, making the drive up I-75 almost every day for games and practice for three straight years. With the hockey season lasting from September to April, the Smolinskis quickly discovered every pothole in the road from Genoa to Detroit.

Once Bryan signed with a Junior-B club in Stratford, Ont., the family was forced to trade in its Volkswagen that had racked up 150,000 miles in less than 36 months.

"I was so excited to go to school because I knew at the end of the day, we were always traveling somewhere to play hockey," Smolinski said. "I was fortunate to play on such good teams that it was always fun to make that trip. I'd be doing homework in the car or studying for a test on that hike up to Detroit, and it was fun for me."

It surely must have been fun for him because Smolinski graduated from Cardinal Stritch with a B average. He also did so in just three years after Father Frank Murd, the school's principal, amended the bylaws to allow Smolinski to make the next jump in his hockey career - playing for Michigan State.

And with that, the vision Tom and Nancy Smolinski had for their son when he was just three years old had been realized.

"Our goal as parents, we were just trying to get him to where he could be offered a scholarship," Tom Smolinski said. "Whatever happened after that was just icing on the cake."

This cake turned out to one that was heavy on the frosting.

Smolinski continued to blossom with the Spartans and was named a first-team All-American his senior season in 1993 after scoring 31 goals and assisting on another 37.

A week after the conclusion of his college career, Smolinski joined the Bruins for their playoff run and appeared in 13 games, racking up two goals and three assists.

From there, Smolinski's career has been marked by plenty of turmoil, having played for eight different franchises during his time in the NHL.

"At the end of the day, it is just a game," Smolinski said. "Early in my career I saw the business side of things when I got traded right off the bat. I was only in Boston three years. Then I had one year in Pittsburgh and had a contract dispute."

After being traded from Pittsburgh to the New York Islanders and then traded from New York to Los Angeles three seasons later, Smolinski had become accustomed to moving around, but nothing could prepare him for what was next.

While in his fourth season with the Kings, Smolinski was dealt at the trade deadline to the Ottawa Senators while on a team flight from Los Angeles to Florida. After disembarking the plane in Florida, he had to catch a flight to Ottawa with a connection in Philadelphia, all the while his wife, Julie, was due to deliver their son, Max, back home on the West Coast.

"He flew cross-country three times in one week," Tom Smolinski said. "It's not all glory, I'll tell you that."

Over this past offseason, Smolinski finally controlled his own fate for the first time in his NHL career as an unrestricted free agent. He opted to sign a one-year contract with Montreal, which he has called his favorite road city throughout his career, and said he will re-evaluate his playing status every offseason until he decides to retire.

"I can honestly say I have no regrets," Smolinski said. "You always want to win the Stanley Cup, but all the experiences I've had up here [in Canada] have been the most fun.

"It's nice to come to a city where hockey is religion. You're pretty much in the heart of it all. Montreal is such a storied franchise. It was an easy decision to come to Canada."

For Smolinski's parents, the ride has been just as sweet.

"For us as parents, it's been a dream come true," Tom Smolinski said. "I wish every father and mother could go through that. I don't know what it's like to not watch him on TV. It's very rewarding to us as parents to be still involved with the game. I feel so proud of him all the time when he plays."

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