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Former coach ‘Lefty’ Smith passes away, leaves legacy

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, January 19, 2012

When No. 6 Notre Dame takes the ice against No. 10 Michigan this weekend, it will be just another step for a team that has become a powerhouse in college hockey. The program has now seen a pair of regular-season CCHA championships and Frozen Four appearances, sent dozens of alumni to the NHL and recently unveiled a new arena, a move to Hockey East and an expanded television deal.

But while the Irish continue to move towards the future, the entire Notre Dame community mourns the loss of Charles ‘Lefty’ Smith, the man who took the program’s first step over 40 years ago.

Notre Dame hockey began in earnest with Smith, who in 1968 coached Notre Dame’s first varsity hockey team. He guided and built up the program through its first 19 seasons, amassing 307 wins. After his retirement from coaching in 1987, he continued to work steadfastly for the University as the facilities manager at the Loftus Sports Center. Earlier this month, Smith retired from his post after 44 years in the athletic department, making him its longest tenured employee. Three days later, at the age of 81, he died at home of natural causes.

For those at Notre Dame who knew Smith, his impact on the University over six decades is difficult to quantify.

“It is difficult to imagine Notre Dame without Charles ‘Lefty’ Smith,” Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said in a statement after Smith’s passing. “From the time I attended my first hockey game as a freshman to the time I spent with him at his retirement party a few weeks ago, Lefty had been a prominent, colorful and impactful fixture at our University. Lefty’s legacy will be measured not so much in the program he built or the games he won, but rather the thousands of lives he touched as a coach, teacher, administrator, father and husband.”

And while Smith’s death sent waves throughout the entire Notre Dame family, his loss was felt especially hard in the locker room of the team he gave life to.

“We wouldn’t be who we are or have what we have if it wasn’t for Lefty. He started the program and gave it life, and was a great ambassador for the University and for college hockey,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “There’s so many great coaches in the early era … guys that really started college hockey, and Lefty was a big part of that.”

As one of the founding fathers of modern college hockey, Smith’s legacy was honored across the tight-knit hockey community. Legendary announcer Doc Emrick paid homage to Lefty during an NHL broadcast on NBC, and condolences poured in from coaches, players and fans alike.

Perhaps the most special tribute to Smith came when the Irish travelled to Minnesota just a few days after Smith’s passing. Jackson said that Lefty had always had an open invitation to travel with the team, and Smith had planned to make the Minnesota game his first trip. Over 10,000 Gopher fans packed into Mariucci Arena for the highly anticipated top-five matchup, but before the puck dropped, the arena halted and observed a moment of silence for the late Notre Dame coach.

Playing an inspired brand of hockey, the Irish came out strong and grabbed an early 4-1 lead. Minnesota mounted a late charge, but Notre Dame held on to win one for Lefty, 4-3.

“Coach Jackson talked to us pregame, and I think it was in the back of guy’s minds that this was a game we wanted to win for Lefty,” Irish senior forward and captain Billy Maday said. “He left a great legacy, and we wanted to do him right.”

And as Smith was such a force behind the bench in the Joyce Center, it is fitting that he will forever be a part of the new Compton Family Ice Arena. When the Irish play the Wolverines this weekend, the game will take place on the Lefty Smith Rink.

Smith was able to participate in the facility’s dedication in November, and Smith’s role in the mission and history of Notre Dame was not lost on the Compton family.

“He was the pinnacle of not just Notre Dame hockey, but of Notre Dame,” Gayla Compton said. “He was loved. It’s one thing to love a university, but to have the same university love him back with such intensity and such sincerity [is incredible].”

So Notre Dame will move forward as a program, starting with this weekend’s series against its archrival. Playoffs and championships will come again, and the team will continue to play, even without their old coach watching from his usual perch in the press box. But as long as the Irish take to the rink named after their program’s patriarch, his presence will still be felt.

“Lefty’s always going to be with us,” Jackson said. “He left a mark on a lot of people’s lives. As long as we’re in this arena, and we wear the Notre Dame jerseys and the golden helmets, he’s always going to be there.”

 

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu