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Ben Smith’s Hall-of-Fame Journey Started One Snowy Night in Boston

By Gary R. Blockus, 12/02/17, 9:00AM MST


Massachusetts native guided Team USA to Olympic gold in 1998  

Ben Smith remembers well one winter night in Boston in 1995.

He was head coach of the men’s ice hockey team at Northeastern University, and it was the night before the Beanpot, a tournament between the four men’s NCAA Division I hockey programs in Boston. USA Hockey executives Dave Ogrean and Art Berglund invited him to dinner.

“It was a cold, snowy night in February,” Smith recalled. “They asked if I would be interested in helping out with a women’s program. It was relatively new.

“They knew that 1998 would be the inauguration of women’s hockey at the Olympic Games. They were trying to find out more about a player pool and asked if I would join a camp in August.”

What Smith agreed to turned out to be history, selecting and coaching the very first U.S. National Women’s Team to represent the United States at an Olympic Winter Games, winning the gold medal to boot in Nagano.

For that and so much more, Smith is one of five people who will be inducted Dec. 13 into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel.

The Class of 2017 also includes Jack Parker, Kevin Collins, Ron Wilson and Scott Young.

Smith is technically already enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the 1998 Women’s Olympic Team. He compiled a 37-7 record in Olympic and IIHF Women’s World Championship play from 1996 through 2006.

“When [USA Hockey Executive Director] Pat Kelleher called me to tell me this past summer, I thought perhaps he was in error because I said I was already in as part of the 1998 team,” Smith said.

“I was incredibly surprised and honored that the committee singled me out for this award, and I’m obviously humbled and surprised.”

Smith likes to joke about taking on the women’s team duties after a highly successful — and ongoing — role with the U.S. National Junior Team.

“I showed up in August [1995] and I’m screaming in my mind, ‘Why am I giving up August, the nicest month of the year, to be in a rink with 40 women to select a group to go play a friendly series in Finland?’“

While women’s hockey was still new to the international stage, it wasn’t new to Smith. He grew up with two sisters who played ice hockey with him, as well as his brother, father and mother in Gloucester, Massachusetts. His dad, Benjamin A. Smith II, was a U.S. Senator, but also a tremendous athlete, and his mom used to figure skate.

“It was back in the 1950s, and believe me, I knew girls could play hockey,” he said. “My two sisters were really good, they just never had a chance to play other than in family things.”

He recalls many of the women on that historic 1998 team that faced the same challenges.

“For pickup games, [forward] Karyn Bye would sign in at the rink under ‘KL’ and keep her hair rolled up under her helmet so no one would know she was a woman and she could pass for a hockey player and get in the games that way,” he said.

He recalled the story of forward Sandra Whyte pitching in Little League baseball, and an opposing manager sitting on the mound to prevent her from taking it during a game.

He called defenseman Tara Mounsey a world-class athlete in anything she wanted to do, and says ice hockey was lucky to have someone like Angela Ruggiero, who grew up on the West Coast.

“There was no ice hockey out there for girls,” he said, “and she was a result of the NHL’s expansion to the West Coast. If someone had handed her a tennis racket, she’d have been playing against those two sisters [Venus and Serena Williams] her entire life.”

Smith served as the women’s coach for three straight Olympic Winter Games, winning gold in 1998, silver in 2002 and bronze in 2006, plus an IIHF World Championship gold in 2005 and five silver medals. He was an assistant coach for the U.S. National Junior Team from 1985-87, and assistant coach for the Men’s National Team in 1987 as well as at the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary.

He was an assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst as well as Yale before joining fellow inductee Jack Parker at Boston University as his assistant for nine seasons. He served as head coach at Dartmouth (1990-91), and then at Northeastern (1991-92 through 1995-96).

Smith’s wife, Julie, is a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team that competed at the first IIHF Women’s World Championship in 1990, and she served as his assistant coach at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He has one daughter, Cassandra.

“Obviously I’ve enjoyed being around the sport for the last 60-65 years, from a kid on the pond to someone who’s had the honor of being at the highest level of national teams,” Smith said. “It’s been a lot of fun, I’ve met some great people, seen some great players, great coaches and have made some great friends. It’s been a lifetime of excitement and enjoyment.”

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