Luke DeCock

In early days, Ron Smith helped Canes get started on right foot – DeCock

In the haze of the early days of the Carolina Hurricanes’ time in North Carolina, Ron Smith’s name may not ring many bells for fans today. That’s a shame, because Smith, who coached the Hurricanes’ minor-league affiliates for seven seasons and passed away Monday at 72, played a key role not only in modernizing the NHL but helping build the foundation of the 2002 and 2006 teams.

Among the players who spent important time with Smith in Cincinnati (IHL) and Lowell (AHL) were Erik Cole, Craig Adams, Jaroslav Svoboda, Chad LaRose and Mike Commodore. That was long after the early days of his career, when Smith helped the late Roger Neilson with his pioneering experiments in video analysis and was tracking scoring chances long before anyone heard of Corsi.

Smith came from an unusual background, an accomplished amateur hockey and baseball player who never played in the NHL but joined Neilson as a part-time assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the late ’70s. He coached the New York Rangers for 44 games on an interim basis in 1992-93 and was already coaching a team full of veteran players in Cincinnati in 1997 when the Hurricanes moved their prospects there from New Haven (AHL).

“He really treated us like NHL players,” former Hurricanes forward Shane Willis said. “He gave us a lot more leeway than (future Hurricanes assistant coach) Kevin McCarthy, our first coach in New Haven. He kept a pretty tight leash. It was a little bit more of an NHL feel in Cincinnati. We had some veteran guys – Gilbert Dionne was on that team – and Ron just wanted to make sure you were ready. If you weren’t, there were repercussions.”

Smith moved with the Hurricanes from Cincinnati to Lowell before stepping down in 2004 and turning things over to Tom Rowe to coach the combined Carolina/Calgary team that included Commodore, Eric Staal and Cam Ward during the lockout. During a time period when the Hurricanes lacked strength and depth in their farm system, Smith helped the best ones get along to the NHL and make an impact, and a few others as well.

In addition to obvious success stories like Cole and Commodore, there were more difficult challenges. Svoboda, a late call-up in 2002, ended up being a perfect fit on a line with Josef Vasicek and Martin Gelinas, even if his career never went anywhere after that. Smith and Rowe were the first to give the undersized Aucoin a legitimate shot, leading to a 145-game NHL career.

Smith spent another decade with the Hurricanes as a pro scout before retiring to his hometown of Cambridge, Ontario, but his tutelage had a huge impact on the two most important seasons in the franchise’s history.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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