Traveling by car in Pennsylvania last week, Avon's Ben Smith was alone with his thoughts. The 22-year-old was still a little upset that his Chicago Blackhawks had come up short in a delightful playoff series with the Vancouver Canucks.
"It was too bad we couldn't keep on going,'' said Smith, who arrived in Chicago via Avon Youth Hockey, Simsbury's Westminster School and Boston College.
The Blackhawks seemed destined to hit the offseason early after they fell into a 3-0 hole to the favored Canucks. And then Chicago mounted an amazing comeback and knotted the series at 3-3 before falling in seven games to Vancouver.
In that sixth game in Chicago, Smith carved himself a little piece of Blackhawks history. Although being a late-season call-up to this NHL team, he scored the game-winning goal in overtime to win a 4-3 game.
"It was just a rebound shot,'' Smith said. "Into an empty net. I guess it hasn't hit me yet."
What hadn't hit Smith was the fact that a few weeks earlier, he was playing hockey for the minor league Rockford Icehogs. The 169th pick (6th round) of the Blackhawks had ended a playoff game in Chicago with the winning goal in front of 21,000 screaming fans and a national television audience.
"I've received a lot of support,'' Smith said. "From my teammates, friends and family. Everyone has been really nice. I just thought about all the people who had helped me out."
Back home in Connecticut, Tom Earl, the business manager at Westminster School and Smith's former hockey coach, was watching it all on TV. He was, he said, pleased but not surprised by his former player's success.
"That was very satisfying to see that," Earl said, "because I know how hard he works as an athlete and to see him rewarded with a goal like that was pretty amazing."
Proving that goal was no fluke, on April 15, Smith dropped in two goals in the 4-3 playoff loss to Vancouver.
So how did Smith make the move from Rockford to the big ice stage in Chicago?
"They had some injuries the last couple weeks,'' he said. "So for the last three games of the season, they needed someone. They kept me in the playoffs. I just kept a low profile."
Smith didn't play scared. Despite his youth, he accepted the challenge well.
"I was really confident in Rockford,'' he said. "I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. That helped me when the playoffs came."
Smith grew up a hockey fan. The Hartford Whalers would practice in Avon. Smith's father shared season tickets for Whalers games. In the meantime, the four Smith brothers took to the ice.
"I was playing hockey all year round when I was 8,'' he said. "My brothers stopped playing when they were 10."
Smith dabbled in both soccer and baseball. But it was clear, hockey was No. 1 for him.
"It was something I was good at,'' he said. "I really enjoyed it."
From youth hockey to the Westmintster School to Boston College.
"I was drafted by the Blackhawks my sophomore year in college,'' he said.
Smith is well aware that, despite his playoff heroics, he needs to work hard to get a spot on the Blackhawks team next year.
"Nothing is guaranteed,'' Smith said. "It's my job to get ready and show the coaches that I can play a whole season."
Smith may take a few weeks off in Avon to relax and then it's time to get ready for another hockey season.
He'll be welcome at Westminster, where he was known not only as an excellent athlete but as a very strong student and a former prefect, Earl said. Smith has often stopped by over the years since he left the school and is "very highly respected," Earl said.
But Smith is not resting on any laurels.
"Overall, I need to become a better athlete,'' he said. "My game is to be solid on the ice. I need to work on my consistency and come back ready to play."
No matter what, he'll always be the young player who scored the game-winning goal in an NHL playoff game.