Like another recent late-round draft steal, Andrew Shaw, Ben Smith was passed over in two consecutive drafts before the Blackhawks took a flyer on him following a breakout sophomore season with Boston College in 2007-08. Unlike Shaw, Smith did not arrive on the scene with a bang. Instead, the Connecticut native, who was picked in the sixth round, worked his way to the pros, showing consistent improvement throughout an impressive four-year collegiate career, then becoming a locker room leader and fan favorite in the American Hockey League with Rockford, and finally earning his chance to shine in the NHL last season.
Fans know Smith for his versatility, gritty shifts and big-time goals (Exhibit A, Game 6 vs. Vancouver in 2011), but Director of Player Recruitment Ron Anderson, who served as an amateur scout during Smith's draft eligibility, remembers him as a scrawny 18-year-old in prep school, hardly a blip on the draft radar. Both Anderson and Smith spoke with chicagoblackhawks.com, recalling the long road to being drafted.
Q&A with Ron Anderson
When did Ben Smith first appear on your radar? Was there any buzz about him during his first two years of draft eligibility?
Anderson: We passed on him for two years, just like every other team. When he was at prep school, he was not a prospect. He was small and slight, but as he went through the process, from his senior year at prep school to Boston College, he started to mature physically. He always had a good mental game; a smart, poised game, but he wasn’t very strong and just didn’t have the speed to play at his size. But as he started to get into the college scene, where there’s a lot more time to do off-ice work than in major-junior, that’s where Ben really started to take off.
After that season, he went to the World Juniors [evaluation] camp in Lake Placid, and that’s where he really stood out to me. He looked like he was starting to get there physically, and had an excellent camp there. He carried that onto his sophomore year.
Between his physical development and the fact that he had a great sophomore season in 2007-08, did that push him over the edge in the team’s evaluation of him entering that year’s draft?
The thing is, at Boston College there are a lot of great players. He was a good player, but he was well under the radar during those years. You had Brooks Orpik, Cory Schneider, Nathan Gerbe and Brian Boyle on those teams; he played with Jimmy Hayes as well. In his sophomore year, he played on a line with Nathan Gerbe, and Gerbe had 35 goals, which is an outstanding year. Ben had the quietest 25 goals in college hockey you would ever see. To get 25 goals in only 35 or 40 games is an outstanding college season.
He did not advertise himself very well, but he was a very consistently effective, productive player in his sophomore year. He really stood out to me in the summer of 2007 after that world junior camp in Lake Placid, and then all through his sophomore year. That’s when he went from being a non-prospect to a prospect to me.
When drafting a player who has already been in college for two years, is there a sense that they are more prepared to transition to the pro game?
What I liked about Ben’s progress was that his improvement was consistent and steady. He was getting better every year. You never know where they’re going to top out, but watching the way he played and the little things he did, his mental game and poise and discipline, you knew he was going to buy himself some time because he was such a smart player. His physical development could catch up.
He got hurt in his junior year with an abdominal injury; he could have packed it in and not played and had the surgery, but he elected to play the year hurt, which really affected him. He had surgery immediately after that year, then came back and had an outstanding senior year, even though he broke his wrist and played with a cast. His two best years were his sophomore year and his senior year. They won national championships in both those years, and he was a big part of both those teams. He has that poise and leadership about him, and at that time, at that level, he was a significant contributor to his team, yet flew under the radar.
Q&A with Ben Smith
Ben, after going undrafted for two years, did you feel discouraged at all, or were you just focused on improving at your own pace?
Smith: It was a little frustrating, but it [gave me] something to work on and try to improve, and I think I did that at BC [my sophomore] year, playing on a line with Nathan Gerbe and Brian Gibbons, two guys who are in the NHL now. I was pretty lucky—I improved, but I also had great linemates and played on a good team. It always helps when you’re a prospect trying to get drafted; being on a high-profile team helped me, and I had a good year.
With the off-ice regiment and facilities available to you at BC, could you feel yourself getting better week after week?
Playing at BC, there was a big staff, a lot of people working to help you improve. The strength coach and I worked pretty hard over the summer before I got to BC for my freshman year. Just little things, like when you’re not in class, you go with the assistant coaches for half an hour and work on skills. They gave me an opportunity to improve, and I was able to take advantage of it, and it definitely helped.
You had a great 2007-08 season that ended with a national championship. Did you feel confident about your chances of being drafted after that?
On draft day I wasn’t really watching. I was back home and I’d been through two years where I hadn’t been drafted, so I didn’t really have high expectations. It was nice when my agent called; he told me that Chicago had picked me in the sixth round, so I was excited. At the time it was a young team, and they hadn’t won a Cup for a long time, but they were growing, and it was a great city. And sure enough, six years later, it’s amazing to see the growth and how far the organization has come.
You said you didn’t pay much attention on draft day, but were you aware of any interest level, either from Chicago or other teams, leading up to it?
I had no idea. I hadn’t been to the combine; I don’t even know if I was interviewed that year. I was interviewed by a couple teams my first year [of eligibility] in 2006, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t really know what to expect. [Former Chicago General Manager] Dale Tallon called me and welcomed me to the organization, and it was nice. It was important to realize that was just the first step in getting where you want to go. You haven’t really made it when you get drafted; it’s a lot of hard work, and I think I understood that. But it was a nice honor, and I was really appreciative. It was just the start of hopefully a pro career and making a living doing what I love.
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