Matt Smaby started keeping notebooks when he was in Germany.
Even though he had three or four years left in his pro hockey playing career, Smaby knew he wanted to be a coach someday. So, he prepared for it.
Smaby bought notebooks and started writing down everything.
He jotted down drills that he liked.
He kept notes about playing systems.
He wrote about his coaches. He documented things past coaches did that he liked, and things he didn’t like.
By the time he was done, he filled four or five notebooks. He even punched notes in on his phone from time to time when thoughts came up.
He got some practice in, too.
Smaby asked the coaching staff at EHC Munchen if he could sit in on video sessions as they broke down opponents’ power plays. As one of the team’s captains, head coach Don Jackson and assistant Matt McIlvane let him do that.
“That’s when my process of being a coach started,” Smaby said. “It started long before I was done playing.”
Smaby retired in the summer of 2017 after leading Munchen to back-to-back championship and he returned to his alma mater, UND, to finish his degree. He also joined the staff as a student manager to try to continue his coaching development.
While NCAA rules limit what he can do with the players, it hasn’t taken Smaby long to impress the veteran UND coaching staff.
That’s why head coach Brad Berry offered Smaby a chance to be on the bench during the third periods of games this season -- something that’s rarely, if ever, happened for volunteer coaches or managers at UND.
“When Bubs (Berry) brought this idea to me, I was kind of shocked -- in the best possible way,” said Smaby, who watches the first two periods from the press box with an earpiece and radio to communicate with the coaches on the bench. “I was excited about it. It’s one thing to watch a game from the press box and analyze it. It’s a totally different thing being back behind the bench and around the guys. There are some restrictions of what I can and can’t do, but I really enjoy being back there. Hopefully I can contribute in any way possible.”
Berry said that Smaby, a 34-year-old former UND captain, has brought a different perspective to the coaching staff -- both on and off the ice.
“We always have our own ideas of what we see as a group,” Berry said. “Now, you see a fresh set of eyes looking at the game with a different perspective, someone who has recently retired from the game.
“The other part is that he bridges the gap -- and I don’t want to say I’m really old, but I am -- he bridges the gap from our young players to our coaching staff, which all of us are a little bit older. He bridges that communication gap or that generation gap with our players and I think that’s a big deal.”
SID AND JONNY'S CAPTAIN
Smaby has always been a leader.
He’s the only person in the world who has been the captain of both Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews -- two players who have captained six of the last 10 Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Smaby captained Crosby at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School in Faribault, Minn., where players didn’t wear letters on their jerseys, but were announced as team captains.
Smaby was part of a wave of talent from Shattuck to UND that included future NHLers Zach Parise, Toews, Drew Stafford, Chris Porter, Taylor Chorney, Chay Genoway and Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan.
Smaby, known for his punishing style of play, was the captain of UND’s 2005-06 Frozen Four team that included 10 NHLers: Toews, Stafford, Travis Zajac, T.J. Oshie, Brian Lee, Porter, Chorney, Matt Watkins, Joe Finley and Smaby himself, who played four years with the Tampa Bay Lightning and professionally for 11 seasons.
The Minneapolis native said he learned a lot from his college coaches.
“I really liked the coaches I had at UND,” Smaby said. “I had (Dean) Blais before he left. That was an interesting experience. I had Hak (Dave Hakstol) and Bubs the whole time I was here. They’re both really, really good coaches and really good people.
“As I was wrapping up my playing career, I was thinking about what I wanted to be like as a coach and what aspects of coaching I respected. Those are two of the guys I thought of. They’re awesome guys and really good coaches. They’re very different in their approach. There are so many different ways to be successful as a coach. Both of those guys are successful being who they are.”
Smaby is expected to graduate this spring. After that, he’s not sure what the future holds, but he knows he wants to coach somewhere.
In the meantime, he’s hoping UND will make a run this season, something he did twice as UND’s captain.
Smaby played in the 2005 NCAA national championship game and in the 2006 NCAA Frozen Four. Both of those teams struggled through the first half of the season but came together for runs in the second half.
“I’m going to enjoy every moment,” Smaby said. “We have great coaches, who are great people, and we have great players as well. It has been a treat to be with them. They’re invigorating and refreshing. One of the most rewarding things is to watch the guys blossom into adults and into great hockey players.”
NO. 15 NORTH DAKOTA AT NO. 2 MINNESOTA DULUTH
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
Where: AmsOil Arena, Duluth.
TV: Fox Sports North Plus (Ch. 639 HD). Midco Sports Network (GF Ch. 27/622 HD) and WDAZ Xtra (Ch. 596).
Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).
Of note: UND will be without senior forward Nick Jones (lower body) for this weekend’s series.