Gene's Blog: Everybody loved ND's Lefty Smith
January 04, 2012
Charles “Lefty” Smith, a 1951 St. Thomas graduate who later was the first men’s hockey coach at Notre Dame, has died in his sleep in his South Bend, Ind., home. He would have celebrated his 82nd birthday Wednesday.
Smith was the longest-tenured
employee serving in the Notre Dame athletic department before he worked his final day last week. His 42-year Notre Dame career began with his hiring in 1968
as the school's first varsity hockey coach. He served 19 seasons in that post. He recently was Facility Manager at ND’s Loftus Sports Center.
Notre Dame’s $50 million ice hockey facility opened 10 weeks ago. It includes the main Lefty Smith Rink, named in his honor through a major gift from a Chicago alumnus and his family.
Smith and his late wife Mickey were married for 58 years. He is survived by seven children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A granddaughter, Nicole Smith, is a Master's student in English and works for the Multicultural Forum at St. Thomas.
A wake will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, in South Bend. The funeral will be held at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame.
Smith made several trips to the state tournament when coaching South St. Paul, including four in row led by an all-stater named Doug Woog. At Notre Dame, he coached against the Gophers’ Herb Brooks, and had Don Lucia as a four-year player.
Smith served a two-year term as president of the American Hockey Coaches Association (ACHA). In 1992 he was inducted into the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame and in 2003 was named a "Legend of Hockey," by the Hobey Baker Memorial Award Foundation. He also was head coach of the at-large team in the first-ever National Sports Festival, and eight of those players went on to play for the USA’s Olympic gold-medal hockey team in 1980.
Smith guided the Irish to two runner-up finishes in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and coached several All-American and future NHL players. His biggest source of pride was the fact that all 126 Notre Dame players who finished their eligibility under his coaching earned their college degrees.
The South St. Paul native came to St. Thomas at age 16 and competed in both hockey and baseball for the Tommies. He was a multiple-time all-state honoree on the ice for St. Thomas despite playing with older players well in their 20s who had come back to college after serving in World War II.
He also was an outstanding left-handed pitcher, and played both hockey and baseball at the semi-pro level after graduating from St. Thomas. At South St. Paul High, he once pitched five games in one day (four five-inning and one seven-inning) to lead his team to the state championship.
“I think I started pitching about seven in the morning and just kept going,” Smith said in a 1976 feature story in the South Bend Tribune.
That newspaper story mentioned his semi-pro baseball days. Smith said he had a chance to sign with the Chicago White Sox but passed on that because he could make more money in the semi-pro game. He played against the likes of Bill “Moose” Skowron and Doc Blanchard.
Smith recalled pitching a no-hitter in the state semi-pro regional finals while playing for the west-central Minnesota town of Winsted. “Not only did I get paid $150, but the farmers gave me three chickens, six dozen eggs and all kinds of sweet corn,” he told the South Bend reporter.
Besides his hockey and baseball opportunities, Smith worked many odd jobs to support his wife and growing family while he attending graduate school at St. Thomas. Smith recalled his days working as a bartender, plus shifts at the hometown packing plant and stockyards, as a substitute teacher and an 11-year run driving a beer truck.
Smith coached Junior hockey from 1952-57 and later was head coach at South St. Paul High, where he compiled a 201-69-11 record. Among his players there were future NFL linebackers Jim Carter and Jim LeClair. South St. Paul had two state runner-up finishes in 1961 and 1968, the former a 1-0 loss to Roseau when Woog was a junior.
Former UST coach Terry Skrypek said Smith was respected as a coach and admired as a person.
"Lefty was a real character," Skrypek said. "He was a great storyteller. I played at Cretin when he was coaching at South St. Paul. His teams were disciplined and methodical and had great success. He's a beloved figure at Notre Dame. I know he's been a mentor to a lot of people.
"I know he had a genuine love for St. Thomas. When we started having alumni golf tournaments he came back in the fall at a busy time to be there. I know he felt good about St. Thomas and the opportunity it gave him. He also would send a note of congratulations to Dennis Denning and me when we have success."
Smith said in the South Bend Tribune story: “Sure, you take pride when you might have had some influence on guys like that, but the greatest sense of pride is to see your people become successes in whatever endeavor they choose.
“A coach is many things. First he is a teacher. Then he is a sounding board, an advisor, a friend. Maybe that means he’s a little bit of a father.”
Smith had hoped to come to Minneapolis this weekend to watch Notre Dame play the Minnesota Gophers and attend a dinner in his honor.
In a Wednesday interview published in Gophersports.com, U of M head coach Don Lucia expressed sadness at the passing of his former coach.
“He was a great man and was somebody that I respected a lot and kept in close contact with over the years,” Lucia said. “I spoke with him last week and was trying to arrange tickets for a lot of his family members to come to the game on Saturday. It will be a sad day on Saturday that he will not be able to be at the game. Anybody that knew Lefty, loved him.”
A profile of Smith written by Minneapolis’ Pat Borzi appeared last April in the New York Times:
Here's a genius-level trivia question: Name three current St. Thomas head coaches who scored goals during their college hockey careers for the Tommies.
Current men's and women's hockey coaches Jeff Boeser and Tom Palkowski are easy answers. The third?
Tommie men's cross country coach Pete Wareham was a six-time All-American distance runner, with two NCAA runner-up finishes. He led the 1984 CC team to a national championship. And he's probably the only All-American distance runner in the country to also play college ice hockey.
Pete played one season for the Tommies in 1981-82, as a freshman, before pulling back to concentrate on his running. In fact, 30 years ago this week, Wareham scored his lone goal of his college career in a 6-5 overtime win over Alaska-Fairbanks.
He was a solid scorer at Minneapolis Southwest and played alongside a couple of guys who went on to Division I hockey careers. He recalls a big playoff game with rival Breck that was contested at the old Met Center in Bloomington.
A couple of years ago, a friend who played at Breck gave Wareham a copy of that 1981 game tape produced by Breck students. A man seen on tape between periods was doing commentary on the game.
"I assumed he was maybe a math teacher at Breck or something," Wareham said.
Imagine Pete's surprise when he later learned that the savvy Breck hockey fan announcing the game was a successful businessman who loved Breck and its hockey program. That same gentleman now sits on St. Thomas' Board of Trustees.
Have you ever heard of Lee Anderson? Yep, that Anderson. Pete's office on the third floor of AARC overlooks the new Anderson Student Center, a $66 million building that opens next week named after the guy who loves Breck... and St. Thomas.