SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minn. — When legendary Minnesota Gophers coach Doug Woog was laid to rest in December, one of the many accomplishments noted on his resume was going directly from coaching at South St. Paul High School to coaching at the top level of college hockey the following season.
Amazingly, Woog wasn’t the first person to do so. Nearly two decades earlier, officials from the University of Notre Dame went to South St. Paul in 1968 and grabbed the Packers’ coach, Charles ‘Lefty’ Smith, to start the modern Fighting Irish hockey program.
When the Gophers hit the ice to battle the Irish on Friday night in South Bend, Ind., they will be skating on the Lefty Smith Rink, named for the Minnesotan who ran Notre Dame hockey for nearly two decades. Eight years after he passed away at age 81, Smith remains a larger-than-life figure among all who knew him and played for him.
“He had a huge personality. That’s the first thing anyone who knew Lefty would tell you about him,” said Bill Green, who was one of Smith’s first recruits and played defense for the Irish. “He was a genuine character, so he didn’t come across as polished, but he was down-to-earth and you could tell there was integrity there.”
Faith, family, hockey
Green, who starred at Alexander Ramsey High School (now Roseville Area) in the Twin Cities, got the call from Smith, who offered him a partial scholarship to Notre Dame and a job on campus. Green was thankful for the offer, but noted that he was one of five children and needed to look out for the rest of his family, so he was inclined to take a full scholarship offer he had received from the University of Minnesota instead. Three minutes later, Smith called back and offered a full scholarship to Notre Dame.
“What I didn’t know at the time is that I pushed the right button with Lefty in talking about family,” Green said. “His idea of family was the world. Anybody from South St. Paul, anybody he met at Notre Dame, they were all family, and he treated everybody so well.”
Born in 1930, Smith graduated from South St. Paul in 1947 and helped start the youth hockey program there. He earned a degree from St. Thomas in St. Paul, then returned to his hometown to teach and coach. After directing South St. Paul to eight state tournament appearances in an 11-year span as the Packers’ head coach, the Irish came calling, and in 1968 Smith moved his wife Mickey and their eight children to northern Indiana, to re-start hockey at Notre Dame. The Irish had last fielded a varsity team in 1927, but after three seasons of playing without a conference, Smith’s program joined the powerful Western Collegiate Hockey Association and was immediately competitive.
On the cusp
In the 1973 WCHA playoffs — in an era where only four teams made the NCAA tournament — the Irish hosted Wisconsin in a two-game total-goals series that would determine which WCHA team went to what is now known as the Frozen Four. They tied the first game 4-4, and were tied 3-3 late in the second game. To this day, South Bend Tribune writer John Fineran, who covered Smith’s teams first as a student and and later for the Tribune, can recall the “bogus” interference penalty that was called on the Irish late in the game, and the name of the referee who called it. The Badgers scored on the power play to win the game, and the series, and a week later won their first NCAA title.
“That could’ve been Notre Dame,” Fineran recalled. “You wonder if that would’ve made a difference.”
Smith’s teams finished second in the WCHA twice, and he was named the league’s coach of the year in 1973. He retired from coaching in 1987 with a career record of 307-320-31. Smith was known to have a short fuse on the bench, but would calm down just as quickly, and his warm personality was a constant assent when recruiting.
“Lefty knew everyone. And if you wanted a coach who was somewhat like a father, that was him,” said Dick Tomassoni, who came to Notre Dame in 1968 out of Chisholm (Minn.) High School as part of Smith’s first recruiting class. “I was a goalie, and he was clueless about goalies, but that didn’t matter. Lefty was a defenseman, so I think he was probably best with defensemen, which makes sense.”
By the time he handed off the coaching duties, the Irish had moved first to the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 1981, then had downgraded their program to club status for one season, before becoming an independent for Smith’s final three years behind the bench. A check of the Irish opponents during much of the 1980s shows that club programs from schools like North Dakota State and Arizona were regulars on the Irish schedule before the program re-joined the CCHA in 1992.
But Smith’s retirement from coaching in 1987 in no way reduced his presence on the Notre Dame campus. He moved into a role managing the school’s indoor football practice facility, and Smith’s office there was a legendary gathering spot for any and all of his “family” with a connection to Irish hockey.
“On campus everybody loved Lefty. Not only the athletes got to know him but before home football games everybody would come back and sit in his office and talk about everything but hockey,” said former Gophers coach Don Lucia, who played for Smith as a collegian. “He was very proud of his South St. Paul roots, his Catholic faith was very important to him, and that was Lefty.”
Lucia said his lasting memory of Lefty’s office was that every square inch of the walls was covered with a photo of him with friends or a Christmas card sent by one of his former players. In addition to his work on the ice, players recall Smith’s work with children in need, and successful drive to have South Bend host the International Special Olympics in 1987.
In the fall of 2011, Compton Family Ice Arena opened. The facility has two ice sheets, and the main one, with 5,000 seats surrounding it, bears Smith’s name. Just a few months later, in early January of 2012, Smith was just a few days shy of his 82nd birthday when his absence at the rink was noted.
“Lefty was supposed to come to a hockey game and didn’t show up,” Fineran recalled. “Tom, his son, went over to the townhouse where Lefty lived. They discovered Lefty had passed away. He was sitting in his lounge chair in shorts and a t-shirt. He had the remote in one hand, and a rosary in the other. That’s the way he went. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Today a scholarship awarded to a South St. Paul High School senior in the name of Lefty and Mickey Smith. They are buried side-by-side at a cemetery in South Bend.