BOSTON, MA – Craig Smith peeked up at the building under construction in downtown Madison. Smith, then a University of Wisconsin freshman, beeped the horn on his scooter as he rode by.
From a lift five stories above the ground, Kevin Smith waved at his son. Then he went back to his work as a glazier, fitting glass into the buildings he was helping to build.
By then, Smith’s son was pretty much on his own. The right-shot forward had earned his Wisconsin scholarship. Smith was living on campus, even with the family home 10 minutes away. The 20-year-old’s NHL rights were owned by the Nashville Predators, after he went in the fourth round of the 2009 draft.
The hands-on work of shaping a boy happened earlier. Smith’s son loved being on the ice, whether it was for the Madison Patriots, the Madison Capitals, Team Wisconsin or Madison La Follette High School. Kevin and his wife Dawn, a homemaker, had to get Craig to and from practice and games and keep him geared up. It wasn’t easy, especially on those brisk Wisconsin days when handling heavy glass and frosty metal frames chilled Kevin’s fingers.
But from three years old, when Kevin put Craig on skates, the boy enjoyed being at the rink. Kevin and Dawn would see to it that as long as his love for the ice continued, they would get him there. Even for those Team Wisconsin games on Friday nights in Minnesota, three-and-a-half hours away.
“I never had to wait on them,” Craig Smith recalled. “I was never late. That’s how I got to college. They said, ‘That’s 80 percent of life, really — just being there and showing up.’”
Reliability is partly why the Bruins invested three years and $9.3 million in Smith. The right wing was on pace for 21 goals last season. It would have been the sixth time in the last seven years that Smith exceeded the 20-goal threshold.
“The biggest feather in any NHL player’s cap is, ‘Can you be consistent? Consistently good?’ Craig Smith was consistently good in Nashville,” said Kevin Magnuson, Smith’s agent. “He’d show up every single fall, being in the top three of the best shape of all his teammates every single year. He rarely got injured. He had a consistent career in Nashville, one he can look back on and be really proud of. He’s got a lot of years left because he’s taken such good care of his body. Consistency is something Nashville fans really grew to love.”
Dependability, it seems, is a family trait.
Becoming a Badger
In Madison, the state university is everything. It is one of the city’s cultural, economic and social engines. For a native like Kevin Smith, who attended Wisconsin hockey games at Dane County Coliseum, life and UW almost always collided. Years later, when the Badgers moved their home games to the Kohl Center, Craig, perhaps a peewee at the time, made a bold declaration.
“He came over to my seat and said, ‘I’m going to play here,’” Kevin Smith recalled. “My brother and I said, ‘Yeah, good luck with that.’ ”
Craig Smith became good enough for the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks to land a Wisconsin offer. There was no second choice for a teenager with deep Madison roots.
“That was one checked off the bucket list,” Smith said. “Growing up, I never watched the NHL, really. As far as I knew, the Badgers were the biggest and greatest thing out there. That was my peak. That’s where I wanted to play. I never even thought about playing after. I just wanted to get to Wisconsin.”
Smith joined a behemoth. His freshman year, teammates included future NHL players Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Brendan Smith and Jake Gardiner. Blake Geoffrion, the 2010 Hobey Baker Award winner, was his linemate. The Badgers lost to Boston College in the NCAA title game.
It was no easy thing, then, for Smith to say goodbye after two years. Smith loved being a Badger. His parents, who drove three hours each way to attend his USHL games in Waterloo, had the easiest commute of their lives.
But Nashville was offering something unique. Because of Smith’s play as a sophomore (19-24—43 in 41 games) and his six points with and against men in the 2011 World Championship, Paul Fenton, then Nashville’s assistant general manager, said a spot on the big club would be available in the 2011-12 season.
This is uncommon for the Predators. One of their organizational pillars is that the road to Nashville almost always includes a stop in Milwaukee, their AHL affiliate.
“My experience, and my firm’s experience, is that never had the Nashville Predators promised anything like this before,” said Magnuson. “With that promise and our trust level in Paul Fenton and (GM) David Poile, we felt comfortable that it was time for Craig to make the jump. It was not an easy or quick decision. We always err on taking things slow as opposed to fast. But with this one, it all added up.”
Fenton kept his word. As a 22-year-old rookie, Smith scored 14 goals and 22 assists in 72 games. It was the baseline for future performance. Whether Smith played alongside Mike Ribeiro, Matt Cullen, Kyle Turris or Nick Bonino, the Predators could count on the speedy shoot-first wing to let pucks fly — and usually get them on net.
Consider that over the last three years, Smith averaged 11.08 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, according to Natural Stat Trick. Only two forwards in the league with 2,000 or more minutes had more: Brendan Gallagher (13.41) and Brady Tkachuk (11.15).
“He wants to be throttle down and play with his hair on fire,” said ex-Bruin Hal Gill, now Nashville’s radio analyst. “That’s what he’s made himself into. Heavy on the forecheck. Always grinding. Always moving his legs. Always pushing the pace. He’s streaky. When he gets hot, he is lights out. When he gets dialed in and starts picking corners, there’s a difference in his shot when he gets into that method. He’s finding corners and he’s drilling them.”
Smith and the Predators grew up at the same time. In Smith’s rookie season, Nashville won its opening playoff series against Detroit. It was only the second time in franchise history the Predators won a round.
In 2016-17, the Predators lost to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final. The following season, they won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time.
“We made it to the second round, and that was a big deal,” Smith said of his rookie season. “Getting there, it was just exciting getting to the playoffs when I was first got there. By the end of it, by the time I left, it was expected. It was expected for us to win.”
So it was disappointing for Smith that, as he advanced through his ninth season as a Predator, a 10th was unlikely. Nashville lost to Arizona in the qualifying round of the NHL playoffs. The Predators informed Smith an extension would not happen.
“Just to pick up and leave … I think it hit us last week,” said Smith of him and wife, Aleah, saying goodbye. “We went back to Nashville, packed up our house and moved (to Boston). It’s mainly the relationships you make with people. Our friends inside and outside of hockey made that whole experience great for us. The next time we come back to Nashville, it won’t be the same.”
Chasing big things
Smith’s preferred target is muskie. It is a freshwater fish. In the lakes of Wisconsin, muskie grow to be as big in real life as the fish described in lubricated tales. They are as smart as they are large.
“They call it the fish of 10,000 casts,” Smith said. “If you don’t get one, it can be a pain throwing lures all day. But if you know what you’re doing, you can get on top of one. Usually, all you need is one for a summer to be great.”
Lakes put Smith at ease. He does not need much to be happy. The fish don’t even have to bite.
“I don’t want to say this as demeaning, but he’s simple. He’s a simple guy,” Gill said. “You don’t need to play the tricks with him. You just tell him what you want. He’ll go and get it. A good Wisconsin boy.”
Smith did not bring a muskie home this offseason. But on Oct. 10, he landed something more lucrative, a target with possibly an even bigger prize at the end of the line. Chats with Don Sweeney and Bruce Cassidy, followed by a call with Patrice Bergeron, helped Smith decide on the Bruins.
“It was a cool conversation,” Magnuson said. “There was mutual admiration between Don, Bruce and Craig — Craig toward the Bruins and how they play. To be part of that conversation was special for me, hearing Don and Bruce know Craig’s game inside and out, exactly where he’d fit on the second power play, exactly where in the lineup, Bruce intimately knowing Craig’s tendencies in a positive way.”
For the first time, Cassidy should have a full cast at right wing: David Pastrnak, once cleared to play, running on the top line, followed by Ondrej Kase, Smith and Chris Wagner. Pastrnak, Kase and Smith will not have to be told to shoot the puck.
Smith and his wife recently settled into their Boston home. He visited Warrior Ice Arena for the first time. He saw the flash of the six Stanley Cups that sparkle outside the dressing room. Smith would like to be part of a seventh.
The transition will not happen swiftly. He is learning a new organization, new teammates and new city after spending 11 years identifying as a Predator.
“It’s definitely going to take some time here over the next couple weeks, getting used to things,” Smith said. “That’s expected. I’m ready for that. I know it’s going to be a little different, moving here and getting situated. That’s to be. People make a place great. From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like there’s just a great group of guys here. I’m lucky enough to be here with those guys. I’m excited to get to work with them.”
Smith doesn’t have a history with any of his new teammates. He will be guided by the advice his father gave him years ago.
“I just want you to be a good person,” Kevin Smith would tell his son. “Everything else will come. Be a good person, a good team player. Everything will fall into place for you.”
As a boy, Craig Smith missed out on Take Your Child To Work day. He wanted to accompany his dad to job sites. Workplace regulations, however, made them off-limits to kids.
It may be one reason Smith did not follow his dad and become a glazier. He had another kind of smooth and hard surface in mind.
The ice business has worked out.