It’s funny. When Ben Smith discovered that I wanted to include him in my series of mentors who have most influenced and improved my life, he was a bit surprised. He maintains that, while he and I have long been good friends, and he knows that I think highly of him, he had not considered himself much of mentor to me. A reason that Ben didn’t think of himself as mentoring me is that the help and opportunities he provided me were as a matter of course in giving back to hockey – and, more precisely, in one case, building a winning hockey team.
Benjamin Smith III is the son of U.S. Senator Benjamin Smith II. The younger Smith grew up in the Massachusetts seaside town of Gloucester. Ben Smith III is a storied and iconic figure in U.S. national hockey. A standout defenseman at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1968, Ben went on to coach in college, then high school, and then again in the college ranks – before coaching U.S. teams in the Olympics.
Yes, Ben Smith knows something about Olympic hockey. He was assistant coach of the U.S. men’s team at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. He would coach the first three U.S. women’s Olympic teams – guiding the squads to gold in 1998, silver in 2002, and bronze in 2006.
I first met Ben in mid December 1979, about two months out from Lake Placid. Team USA was up in Buffalo for an exhibition game against Yale University, which we played at a private prep school, The Nichols School. Ben was the assistant coach of Yale. Tim Taylor was the head coach.
Both teams were staying at the same hotel, and after the game, the Boston guys, Mike Eruzione, Jack O’Callahan, Dave Silk, and myself and also Ben, were sitting around and eating pizza. Now, at this point in our journey to the Olympics, even though we were not far out from games, our team had not been finalized. NO ONE was sure of THERE position on the team. And we were all nervous. My teammates felt that not having the team set this point was wrong. I felt the same. And as we sat there eating pizza, I openly shared my views.
Ben would later say he was impressed with my forthrightness and that I stuck up for my teammates. I appreciated Ben saying that.
As I got to know Ben better, and learned more about him, I admired how hard he worked at coaching and at helping to make players better, and produce teams that won. He truly had a mission in life – one he pursued passionately and with keen focus.
Ben taught me a lot about how one can improve one’s life through helping others learn and become better at and enjoy a sport that had done so much for the teacher. (let’s elaborate on this a little more)
After coaching at Yale, Ben was the assistant coach, to head Coach Jack Parker, at Boston University, from 1980 to 1990. He then became head coach at Dartmouth College for a year, and then returned to Boston to become head coach of Northeastern University. Early in the 1993-94 season, Ben reached out to me and asked if I had any time to help out, on a volunteer basis, the NU goaltenders.
I was doing well with my marketing and sales career, and since my territory had me rarely traveling outside the Boston area and southern New England. I worked out of my home and I loved teaching goaltending, so I said sure – with one condition – that I could bring my four year old son, JD, with me. You see, between my “day” job and my coaching, I would be away from home a lot, and while my wife, Sharlene (Charlie), and I were able to spend time together almost every evening, a good portion of that time was later than bedtime for my son who had just outgrown toddler status. Ben said that having JD with me was no problem at all. And it wasn’t. In fact, over the three consecutive seasons I volunteer coached for the NU Huskies, I was rewarded in many ways, with the bonding experience between JD and myself being paramount. I didn’t miss many practices or games, and JD frequently drove with me on the round trip between our house in Easton and Matthews Arena, the NU home ice. JD even traveled with us for some road games. Ben and his coaching staff, and the players, were great to JD, and adopted him as a sort of team little brother.
While coaching with Ben, I learned and saw a coach who was fair and caring – and who was a superior mentor – and saw potential and helped pull out greatness from his players. He made big demands of them, even as he understood, and this understanding was manifest in the way he coached, that amid all the pressure and demands of major college hockey, of international hockey, players and coaches should still be having fun.
I saw a very smart and dedicated man who loved coaching, and loved hockey. It has been more than 20 years since I coached at Northeastern University, and over that time, and continuing today, I enlist and apply what I learned from Ben Smith, making sure that the game was fun.
A primary example, in my teaching and speaking and writing about winning teamwork, is that I advise and motivate people within companies and other organizations to work with intense focus and high enthusiasm, but to never lose one’s humanity or ethics in the process – to treat one another fairly, to compete fairly, and hold one’s self and others accountable.
Ben Smith also showed me that a winning coach and manager stewards teams that are on guard against pettiness and selfishness, and thwart that negative energy – and instead guides and helps teams manage through ego and conflict. Of course, Ben’s counsel and mentoring is evident in other areas of my work.
Ben Smith had a majorly positive impact on my life. I am better coach, teacher, motivator … and person … for having worked with, and for knowing, him.