Feb 9, 2012, 11:33 AM EDT
When Charles “Lefty” Smith came to South Bend in 1968 as the first varsity hockey coach, his process to build a program was much more difficult than people in the modern era can realize.
“It was very exciting when they first came to town, actually he and (assistant coach) Tim McNeill both had to start many things here,” described Lefty’s son Michael Smith. “No one knew how to manage an ice rink at all. They had to teach the Zamboni drivers how to drive the Zamboni around the rink. They had to show them how to lay the concrete floor.”
“So they had to go through all the rink management, the coaching, and then they had to do public skating and promote that because they had to bring skating to South Bend. They had to launch a figure skating club. They launched the Irish Youth Hockey League, and then they also had to run P.E. classes.”
Lefty worked at the University for more than 43 years before his retirement several weeks ago. He coached the hockey team for 19 years, earning WCHA Coach of the Year honors in 1973.
The Monogram Club dedicated last weekend to memorializing Smith’s life, legacy, and impact in the wake of his passing Jan. 3 at the age of 81. More than 40 of his former players came to Notre Dame in support of his family and to participate in the weekend’s events, which centered around the weekend series against Bowling Green.
“I think everybody knows what he meant to the program as far as the history of the program,” head coach Jeff Jackson said. “I’m just grateful that our staff and our team will have the opportunity to spend some time with the Smith family since we didn’t have that opportunity when he passed away because we were on the road.”
The program that Lefty started in 1968 has recently reached new heights, competing in the Frozen Four twice in the last four years. In October the team moved from the Joyce Center to the brand-new Compton Family Ice Arena.
The man who led the genesis of the modern hockey program may have built his teams at the Joyce Center, but his name has since been immortalized on the ice of Compton. Since the opening matchup against RPI, the Irish have played all home games on Lefty Smith Rink.
“My mom passed away about 26 months ago, she was able to see the recognition that it would be named for him and it was just – she was thrilled for him. We were all thrilled and honored. It was a huge thing,” Lefty’s daughter, Cheryl Ake, said. “He ate, breathed and lived Notre Dame. So for him to have something named after him on this campus is a huge thing for him and for us as a family.”
The rink was named after Lefty Smith because of a donation made by the family of John Boler, who wanted to memorialize the former coach and family friend.
“My dad and myself and my sister – we had been talking forever about wanting to do something for Lefty,” said John’s son, Matt Boler. “He made an impact on so many people in so many different ways beyond hockey. He’s just really a tremendous man. Our view is – and mine in particular as an alum of the University – those are the kind of guys the university should celebrate.”
Lefty’s seven children were on the ice to drop the puck on Friday night, and a video commemorated Lefty’s legacy during the first intermission. The next game, the Boler family was honored before the game, and all Lefty’s former players who came to South Bend for the weekend came on the ice for the intermission.
The weekend was reminiscent of one of the reunions Lefty would hold while he was coach. Like those reunions, Saturday featured an alumni game for the former players who returned to campus.
“One of the key things for him was always camaraderie that he had with his former players. It was very tight, very close,” Michael said. “In his era of the 19 years he was here, he would have a reunion. And those guys would bring their families back and everything for the reunion. Very often with reunions you see the guy alone, but they brought the families along, so it’s all about the families for them and the memories that they had together with them.”
“It was part of the tradition to have an alumni hockey game and then having a dinner on the last night. My dad always was the final speaker of the night to wish them well and thank them for coming and being a part of his life. So it’s something really unique and special for all of us.”
The events gave the Irish players the chance to meet with Smith’s family, especially at Saturday night’s reception at O’Brien’s, the CFIA restaurant. Former players mingled with current athletes to cap the weekend.
“It’s great for the program,” said sophomore forward T.J. Tynan. “Obviously Lefty built the program from the ground up, and it’s great to get to meet his family and all the guys that played for him and just get to know the guys that made history here at Notre Dame.”
All the current Notre Dame players now compete in the upper echelon of the sport in a premier arena, much in thanks to the foundation Lefty laid and the generosity of people like the Bolers.
“Now it’s an opportunity for us to have an absolutely state-of-the-art facility – great for the players and recruiting, and really wonderful for the fans,” Michael said. “When Dad had the chance to really see it and they asked him to come over and paint his name on the ice, he had tears in his eyes.”
Although “Lefty Fest” was only one weekend, the iconic coach will be remembered long after those two days. Future generations of Irish players will skate on the rink that bears his name and, more importantly, for the program that he built.
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