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It looks like an improbable late-season surge. The Canisius College hockey team, in some regards, had no business being in Rochester, let alone winning the championship game and stealing Atlantic Hockey's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament field.

The Golden Griffins got hot at the right time. They found their scoring touch. They started to roll with confidence. That's what has allowed them to rattle off eight straight wins, the longest current winning streak in the country. That's what propelled them to overnight success.

But an overnight success is more than eight games in the making.

Try eight years.

It was 2005 when Dave Smith was hired to take over a Canisius program that had just come through a season of off-ice turmoil. The previous coaching staff had been let go and several players presented discipline problems.

Smith had to find a way to mesh the past with the present while setting a new tone and creating the type of program culture he had envisioned for his first head coaching job. It wasn't a smooth process, but when Canisius hired Smith, the school found the right personality to lead the program to the next level.

“It was a challenge because as a new head coach you want to go down your own road,” Smith said. “But we did need to embrace the road traveled to that point. ... And one of my jobs, probably the hardest part, is to mesh the past and the present to one unified hockey program. The early years were tough. We were establishing our culture.”

Smith calls the process footprints in the snow. The steps will feel strange at first because they've taken a turn in a different direction. But taking those first steps was eased a bit when three-year captain Fred Coccimiglio decided to stay for his fifth year of eligibility in order to play one year under Smith.

“What he bought from other programs, from playing professionally, from playing at Ohio State, it just all came together at Canisius,” said Coccimiglio, who now works as a pharmaceutical representative in Ontario and remains close with the Canisius program. “I wish I had another four years to play with him. He brought accountability to the program. It was definitely school first, hockey second. He brought in good people who were great for the program but the biggest thing he brought was accountability.”

That word, “accountability,” comes up a lot when talking about Smith and the Canisius program. Current players talk about accountability often. It's a big part of the culture of the program and one of the intangible pieces that has held the team together, particularly this year as the Griffs struggled at times to find a way over that one-goal, one-bad-shift hump.

“One of the things we talked about coming into the year was to be more accountable. I think that starts within the players,” junior goaltender Tony Capobianco said. “I think our senior captains and our seniors have done a great job and that makes it easy for Coach. He can focus on the systems and knows that in the locker room guys are holding each other accountable.”

“He always preaches team culture,” senior captain Preston Shupe said. “The motto we use is, 'Every day a champion,' whether it be in the classroom, on the ice or whatever you're doing. Be as great as you can every day. ... It's pretty easy to play for a guy that cares as much about the team as he does. It's easy to want to win for him. I think that's why the team has had so much success.”

In looking at coaching styles, Smith's is one that puts a premium on accountability, on passion, on attention to detail. Before arriving at Canisius in 2005, he spent five years as an associate coach under Rick Gotkin at Mercyhurst. During that time, the Lakers won two championships and went to the NCAA Tournament once.

In the Atlantic Hockey championship, Gotkin and Smith coached against each other for that precious NCAA bid. And while Gotkin was disappointed for his team, he was thrilled to see Smith cap his season with a title.

“Dave and I go back 30 years,” Gotkin said. “He was with us for three years and his prints are certainly on our program. The things he has done at Canisius, turning the program around, I'm absolutely not surprised. I'm disappointed with our team losing, but if it couldn't be us, I'm thrilled for Dave and for his program.”

Smith played at Ohio State from 1988-92, then played six full seasons of professional hockey in the AHL and IHL before moving into coaching. He was an assistant coach at Miami and Bowling Green before moving to Mercyhurst to work with Gotkin. And Gotkin saw in Smith a coach who would be successful when he got the opportunity to take over his own program.

“The things that Dave Smith brings is first off, he is very intelligent. Not just in hockey. He's just an overall intelligent guy,” Gotkin said. “No. 2, he's very detail-oriented. The third thing is he is great with people. He's a really good communicator and finally, he works hard. Those are all qualities you look for in a head coach. He played professionally in the AHL and had a good minor league career because of his work ethic and his attention to detail.”

Smith is quick to note that the success of the program and the culture shift has been possible because it is part of a larger context in the Canisius athletic program. Smith was hired right around the same time as current Athletic Director Bill Maher. With a new administration and a new commitment to the program, Smith feels he has benefited from full-time support staff, one that helps with that accountability piece and one that has allowed the first-time head coach to grow into his role over the past eight seasons.

“I live in a suburb and in our little community, if a stranger drives down the street, the neighbors look at him,” Smith said. “For us, our guys walk around campus and that's the strength of a campus our size, people know who the hockey guys are. They know the expectation level. It takes a community. I can't do this alone. As the culture gets passed along year to year, it's never easy, but it's gotten easier.

“I had an experience with another coach who said he didn't feel as if he was ever ready to be a head coach because there was so much to learn, he didn't know if he would ever learn it. I was probably overconfident. I had thought about all these things and I had passion to be a head coach. When given the opportunity, I had played it out a hundred times in my head. I just needed to make some mistakes and be willing to accept those over my eight years here. There have been a lot of mistakes that I've made but we've also done a lot of things well.”



email: amoritz@buffnews.com