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Legendary Irish hockey coach dies

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Charles W. “Lefty” Smith Jr., the University’s first varsity hockey coach and longest-tenured employee until retiring as facilities manager of the Loftus Sports Center a month ago, died of natural causes at his home in South Bend on Tuesday. He was 81.

Smith directed the Irish hockey program from 1968 to 1987, amassing a 307-320-30 career record and migrating to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) during the 1981-82 campaign, a season that included an appearance in the CCHA championship game. During his 19 seasons at the helm, all 126 players he coached completed their college eligibility and earned degrees.

“It is difficult to imagine Notre Dame without Charles ‘Lefty’ Smith,” Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said. “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 — a legacy that we had the privilege of honoring with him in naming the Lefty Smith Rink at the Compton Family Ice Arena. We will miss him greatly, but we will never forget him.”

The Lefty Smith Rink at the Compton Family Ice Arena was named in his honor in a ceremony on Nov. 18, and a dedication for the rink had been scheduled for Feb. 3-4 to honor the late Irish coach. Smith took part in the opening faceoff at the arena in its inaugural game in October.

“We’ll all miss him,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “I got to know him a lot more obviously in recent years and it was just a great moment that he was able to be there for the dedication [Nov. 18 against Boston College] and the rink that’s named in his honor and for him to get a chance to see the program that he built in the Compton Center. I’m grateful that he was at the game on Saturday night (a 5-2 win over Boston University) and the last memory he’ll have of Irish hockey is playing in that great building in front of a jam-packed crowd and the team winning and being really proud of what he built a long, long time ago.”

During his 19-year tenure, the program produced six All-Americans, including Eddie Bumbacco (1973), Bill Nyrop (1973), Jack Brownschidle (1976, 1977), Brian Walsh (1977), Greg Meredith (1980) and Kirt Bjork (1983).

Smith was instrumental in bringing the International Special Olympics to Notre Dame in 1987. The 12-day event included 6,000 athletes from 72 nations as he oversaw the efforts of 22,000 volunteers.

Along with longtime assistant Tim McNeill, Smith started the Irish Youth Hockey League, which first brought youth hockey to the South Bend area, a tradition that has been continued with the construction of a second rink within the Compton Family Ice Arena.

“He was the founding father of the program and was a guy who really started the varsity program in the 1960s and I’m sure that what we have and where we are today certainly wouldn’t happen without him and I think everything is about what he put in place,” Jackson said. “He was a quality man and one of the legends of the game for college hockey. He certainly had an impact on the WCHA back in the day and obviously Notre Dame — the University, not just the hockey program.”

Smith and his late wife, Mickey, raised a large family of eight children. He is survived by seven children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Kaniewski Funeral Home, 3545 North Bendix Drive in South Bend. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.