International Ice Hockey Federation

Smith: “Athleticism is key”

Smith: “Athleticism is key”

Legendary U.S. coach on state of women’s game

Published 15.08.2018 16:18 GMT+11 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Smith: “Athleticism is key”
Ben Smith during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games on home ice in Salt Lake City. Photo: Gerry Thomas
Colourful, contrarian, complex. Call him what you want, but Ben Smith has never wavered in his desire to do his duty for USA Hockey. He’s worn every hat.

His first Olympic experience came 30 years ago as an assistant coach for Dave Peterson at the 1988 Games in Calgary. Currently serving as the director of player personnel for the 2018 Olympic men’s hockey team, Smith remains best-known for his role as the head coach of the women’s team at three consecutive Winter Games.

Smith, 72, masterminded the greatest moment in U.S. women’s hockey history, the 1998 Olympic gold medal victory over archrival Canada (3-1) in Nagano.

A former college coach at Dartmouth and Northeastern, he nearly guided the women’s national team to a home-ice triumph in Salt Lake City in 2002, but suffered a narrow final loss (3-2) to the Canadians. He was also there for the most shocking moment in 2006, the semi-final shootout loss to underdog Sweden (3-2) in Turin after long-time captain Cammi Granato was cut from the Olympic roster.

Overall, Smith’s official IIHF record with the national team was 37 wins and seven losses, with two gold medals (including the 2005 Women’s Worlds), seven silvers, and one bronze (the 2006 Olympics).

We chatted with IIHF Hall of Fame member Smith. He shared some candid thoughts on women’s hockey.

On how the women’s game has changed

I think the overall level of players has really risen. The one thing I’m not sure I’m seeing is the superstar level of player that might have been around back when I was coaching the first teams. But the rise of the game overall has taken off.

On girls playing with boys

There are so many more opportunities for girls to play on girls’ teams [now], and I think some of the great players grew up playing on boys’ teams. That’s how they got to the level they reached.

I think of Tara Mounsey, who played on the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams. To me, she’s one of the top players of all time. She’s a defenceman, and they don’t always get the notoriety that the goalies and forwards get. But she was a rugged, physical, great athlete playing the game.

On the benefits of playing multiple sports

Those women we had in ‘98, they were all tremendous athletes. They all played at the collegiate level in a variety of sports. They were track stars, softball stars, field hockey stars. They played soccer and lacrosse.

Now one of the things that’s happening to our game in our part of the world, it seems that all they do is play hockey. I’m not sure that’s always a good thing for the younger kids. I think a full diet of athleticism is key. You're not going to get a great player if you don’t have a great athlete. The two things go hand in hand. I worry that some of our players are playing 50 weeks a year.

On why the U.S. has struggled to beat Canada in Olympic finals since 1998

It's so hard when things just come down to one game. Obviously you have to give the Canadian team so much credit for being able to do that. In 1997-98, we met each other 13 times going into Nagano, and we were at six wins and seven losses. Then we won the next two games to win the series and more importantly the gold medal. You don’t want to win the wrong game.

On what women’s hockey needs to reach the next level in America

What our sport needs is good athletes. We need people to get excited and come to the sport. There’s probably close to $30 million total spent on women’s hockey in a year in the United States, but there’s nothing like an Olympic gold medal.

That was always to me the saddest part about the Salt Lake thing. It was in our home in prime time. I think that would have been a really big boost.


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