Checking in with ... Bryan Smolinski

Hockey a family affair for former NHL star.

By Steve Junga / The Blade
Fri, 22 May 2020 23:42:50 GMT

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BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — When asked what hockey meant to him, and the impact the game has had on his life, Bryan Smolinski didn’t need to think long for an answer, or use many words to describe the relationship.

“Family,” Smolinski said.

The Genoa native and 1989 Cardinal Stritch graduate who became one of the nation’s top collegiate players at Michigan State University, later spent 15 seasons with eight teams in the National Hockey League.

Smolinski, 48, is the most accomplished hockey player from the northwest Ohio area. And, his path was an unlikely one, based on the dynamics of his sport in relation to where he came from.

Thanks to the personal sacrifice of his hockey-loving parents Tom and Nancy, Bryan “Smoke” Smolinski was able to maximize his potential.

It helped that he had former Toledo Goaldigger Doug Mahood as his coach during the crucial formative years in the game, then followed a fruitful path to the Detroit area to the competition needed to continue his growth as a player.

Step by step and year by year, Smolinski hit all the marks, and realized a dream in the process.

“Going through all those years, it was just a family experience,” Smolisnki said. “It was my immediate family, and then every team I played on was a family.

“Now I’m a parent, and my son [Max, 17] plays, and my youngest daughter [Rylen, 9] is starting to play.

“You play a role in development of character and life skills. Hockey developed my character and my life skills. I’m able to do what I do now because of hockey.”

The Smolinski family, which also includes Bryan’s wife of 23 years, Julie, and elder daughters Ashtyn, 19, and Jojo, 13, reside in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.

Tom and Nancy, both 70, grew up in Toledo. Although Tom played basketball at DeVilbiss High School, he and his wife grew to love hockey as die-hard fans of the Toledo Goaldiggers from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, that while raising Bryan and his older sister, Jennifer. 

They got him into his earliest leagues locally at the former Toledo Sports Arena, the Ice House, and Tam-O-Shanter in Sylvania, and as his talent surfaced onto the travel team coached by Mahood.

Continuing to excel against older kids throughout, Smolinski eventually played at the Triple-A level in the Detroit area, and junior hockey in Stratford, Ont.

Smolinski also excelled as a junior-high football player (running back and defensive back) at Genoa, and was a gifted youth baseball player in his hometown, and later as an All-City League catcher at Stritch.

His Triple-A performance led to a scholarship to national power Michigan State. He chose the Spartans of veteran coach Ron Mason over several offers, including from Bowling Green and the University of Michigan.

Graduating from Stritch in just three years, Smolinski had played just one season at MSU (1989-90) and was still just 18 when he was selected in the first round (21st overall pick) of the 1990 NHL draft by the Boston Bruins, who maintained his rights throughout the remainder of his college career.

He was a key player as a junior in the Spartans’ advancement to the 1992 Frozen Four, and as an MSU senior (1992-93) was in the top three in the voting for the 1993 Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the most outstanding player in college hockey.

Just a few days after Michigan State was eliminated from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament and failed to receive a berth in the 1993 NCAA tournament, Smolinski signed his first NHL contract (a three-year deal) with the Bruins.

A center, he played nine games with Boston at the end of that season, beginning his 15-year ride as an NHL regular. He later played for the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens.

Smolinski played in 1,056 NHL games, totaling 274 goals and 377 assists for 651 career points. His teams reached the Stanley Cup playoffs 12 times, and he played in 123 postseason games. Twice (Pittsburgh, 1996; Ottawa, 2003) his teams lost in the seventh games of conference finals.

After spending what would be his final NHL season (2007-08) with Montreal, Smolinski had a contract opportunity with Pittsburgh the following year, but was unable to play because of a hernia injury. Ironically, that Penguins team won the 2009 Stanley Cup, defeating the Detroit Red Wings 4-3 in the final series.

Smolinski, who had never played minor-league hockey in his career to that point, except for a brief stint during the NHL’s lockout season of 2004-05, played 21 games at the end of the 2008-09 IHL season. Then, at the request of a friend from his MSU days, spent his final hockey season with the Flint Generals in 2009-10.

Since retiring, Smolinski has coached high school hockey in the suburban Detroit area, and for the past three-plus years he has been employed by the NHL in a youth hockey enterprise named SGL — Social impact, Growth initiatives, and Legislative affairs.

“We build vibrant communities through hockey,” Smolinski said of the mission. “I represent nine NHL teams, and we do youth engagement participation, positive family experience, leadership throughout the community, fan development and retention.”

OPENING FACEOFF: “My mom and dad were very big Goaldigger fans,” Smolinski said. “They put me in and I kind of took off with it. I remember playing when I was 4, 5 6, and it just continued. I played in the house program in Toledo up to around 11 and 12.

“The most stable team I played on that was good was Toledo Giha’s. They were great sponsors, and our coach was Doug Mahood. He put together a pretty good team.”

ON THE ROAD: “My parents made tremendous sacrifice,” Smolinski said of his youth hockey days. “My father worked for Edison, and he worked a lot of overtime. My mom was a secretary, and she had a few jobs. Anything that would pay the bills.

“It was about my hockey but, don’t get me wrong, they had a lot of fun as well. We had a lot of friends. It is an expensive sport, but everybody has their own goal. They love being around [the other hockey] people, and they love watching their kids compete. I loved the family time we had traveling. I loved the drives up to Detroit with my mom and dad.”

MICHIGAN STATE: “It was an unreal experience,” Smolinski said of his college career.” I wish anybody could do it at any level — go play college hockey. I had some ups and downs just like any normal teenage kid.

“My fun years were my junior and senior years. A light bulb kind of turned on, and I started getting bigger and stronger from all the workouts. I matured, and I was allowed to have failure by Ron Mason. You don’t know much about yourself until you face a little bit of adversity.” 

NHL DREAM REALIZED: “We didn’t make the NCAA tournament,” Smolinski said. “We found out on a Sunday, and by Wednesday, I had signed a contract. I was in Boston watching the Bruins play the Montreal Canadiens. It was pretty surreal.

“You go from the kid who was in communications classes six hours earlier, and you’re on a plane to Boston. I met Ray Bourque and Cam Neely and some of the other greats. I’m sitting down with Harry Sinden, the GM, and watching the Bruins play a game in the old Boston Garden. I played nine games and then we went into the playoffs.

“My first game was against Pittsburgh and Mario Lemieux. I was nervous as hell all day. I didn’t know what to expect. I was no slouch myself, and I was 6-1 and 205 pounds. But, the game is faster and these guys think faster. I was scared as hell when I went out on my first shift. I had a faceoff against Mario Lemieux, and I won it by the way.”

SURREAL CLIMB: Smolinski said that each step up in his career seemed unbelievable as they were happening, and had repeatedly had a reaction of ‘Wow!’.

“I did that at every level,” he said, “whether it was Triple-A in Detroit, or juniors in Stratford, Ontario. Every time I was like, ‘I’m one step closer to going to college. That’s what I really wanted. The whole draft was the icing on the cake. “I’m from Genoa, Ohio. What the hell do I know about making it to the National Hockey League? Everything I was doing was defying the odds, just by pursuing the dream.

“When I was growing up, I practiced to become a Toledo Goaldigger. I’m not going to lie. Every time I was in the driveway when I was shooting or roller skating, I was thinking, ‘All I want to do is play for the Goaldiggers.’ That’s all I knew.”

STAYING POWER: “You don’t really know you made it until you sign your second contract,” Smolinski said of becoming an established NHL player. “That’s what was communicated through all the players. The contracts were different back then. You didn’t have those long-term deals you see now. Everything was very short. I was just happy to be there after college. I was making $175,000 [on rookie contract] and I was like, ‘I’ve got it made.’ That was a three-year contract.”

Smolinski’s best NHL contract paid him around $2.5 million per season.

PERSPECTIVE: Smolinski’s final hockey season came in a lower minor league with the Flint Generals in a watered-down reincarnation of the IHL. His boyhood heroes on the Toledo Goaldiggers played in the original IHL.

“On that team, we actually had the most fun,” Smolinski said. “It was every bit like the movie Slapshot. We didn’t know who the owner was, we never got equipment, the kids didn’t get paid, we had a horrible bus, and there were fights. It was crazy, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had.

“I just said, ‘What the heck. I’m just going to go enjoy the last little bit.’ These kids were so much fun, and they looked up to me. I was an older guy and tried to give them a little bit of tutelage. These guys were playing for their hockey lives. The bus rides sucked, and there were 1,200 people in the stands. But the guys didn’t care. It was, ‘Let’s just go play and have fun.’ And, that was it for me. I was done. It was time to become a father.”