Brendan Smith insists he’s focused on the opportunity at hand for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, not the personal one that eluded him earlier this week.
The junior defenseman said he’s preparing for an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal assignment against Rochester Institute of Technology Thursday at Ford Field in Detroit.
“My mind’s been into next week for a while,” Smith said after practice Friday.
The second-ranked Badgers face RIT with the winner advancing to play Miami (Ohio) or Boston College for the national title Saturday. Smith said his attention would be on those challenges even if he had received good news earlier this week regarding the Hobey Baker Award.
To the surprise of many, he didn’t. Smith was one of 10 nominees for the award, given annually since 1981 to the top U.S. college player, but he wasn’t among the final three.
“As of right now, nothing’s sunk in,” he said. “The thing at task is RIT.”
Smith, a first-round NHL pick of Detroit in 2007, is the highest-scoring defenseman in the nation this season with 15 goals and 32 assists in 40 games, nine points more than the next closest blue-liner. He also was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Western Collegiate Hockey Association — his current plus/minus ratio of goals scored vs. goals allowed while on the ice is plus-12 — and was the top vote-getter among first-team selections.
Smith, a 21-year-old from Mimico, Ontario, was the only defenseman among the 10 Hobey nominees.
But when the Hobey Hat Trick was announced Wednesday, Smith wasn’t on it. UW senior center Blake Geoffrion, New Hampshire senior right winger Bobby Butler and Maine sophomore right winger Gustav Nyquist were the ones chosen by a nationwide panel of 24 voters.
“I felt I had a good season this year and maybe could have put myself as a nominee for the top three, but, I mean, look at the players that were nominated,” Smith said. “They’re all great players.”
Butler leads the nation in goals with 29, while Nyquist was the top overall scorer with 61 points (19 goals, 42 assists). Geoffrion is tied for second nationally with 27 goals and tied for first in power-play conversions with 14.
Smith faced Butler earlier this season when the Wildcats came to Madison and said Butler was one of New Hampshire’s best players. As for Nyquist, Smith said 61 points is a “ridiculous” total for any college player.
“And you can’t take it away from Blake,” Smith said. “He’s the best player on our team.”
UW coach Mike Eaves felt both his players should have been finalists, but didn’t complain about the process that will culminate with the Hobey presentation Friday in Detroit. He said Smith will likely draw motivation from the moment.
“If anything, I think it will fuel him to play even better at the Frozen Four because he’ll want to show people (he) was a deserving candidate as well,” Eaves said.
Smith is in position to become the first Badgers defenseman to reach 50 points since Sean Hill in 1990-91. He also has a shot at the single-season school record for power-play goals by a defenseman. He has 11, two behind Rob Griffin in 1979-80.
It’s difficult to fathom Smith returning to UW for his senior season regardless of what happens next week.
“It’s hard to know,” said his father, Lester Smith. “Brendan’s been a professional hockey player since he was 5 years old, as far as in his mind.”
Right now, though, Brendan Smith’s mind is in one place: RIT and the Frozen Four.
“It’s an exciting feeling,” he said.