By Ryan J. Harr
One year ago, then a 23-year-old junior at UMass-Lowell, forward C.J. Smith was in the midst of his third season with the River Hawks while also pursuing his Business Finance degree.
Fast forward one year later, where the 5-foot-11, 185-pound forward, who is in his first season with the Rochester Americans, just recently participated in his first American Hockey League All-Star Classic. Smith leads the Amerks in all offensive categories with 14 goals, 24 assists and 38 points while being one of just two skaters to appear in all 45 games thus far games this season.
“It has gone really well,” Smith said about the start to his first season of pro hockey with the Amerks. “I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of success but some of credit goes to my teammates and coaches. They and others behind the scenes have all had a hand in my success, so I am appreciative of their assistance.”
Monday night at Utica’s Adirondack Bank Center, the AHL’s best showcased their skills in the AHL All-Star Challenge, which is a round-robin tournament among the league’s four divisions, played at 3-on-3.
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Smith finished the night with three goals and two assists, including the game-winning tally in the championship game that would later earn him 2018 AHL All-Star Challenge Most Valuable Player honors.
“It was an incredible feeling,” Smith said. “I was shocked when I heard my name. The games are laid back and a lot of fun, but as they went on they became more intense. Like all competitors, we wanted to win.”
The North Division faction defeated the Pacific Division in the championship game but not before staving off elimination. The North stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to the Atlantic in the final preliminary contest with an incredible four-goal comeback aided by Smith.
“We came back from a three-goal deficit late and it gave us a lot of momentum going into the championship. Then in the finals after we got the lead, we just clamped down defensively,” said Smith, whose lone tally secured the 1-0 win for the North over the Pacific.
Preceding the AHL All-Star Challenge on Sunday was the AHL All-Star Skills Competition, where the league’s All-Stars were divided into two teams representing their respective conferences. The participants took part in series of seven events.
Smith first showed off his talents as he was a part of the second heat in the Sher-Wood Puck Control Relay, in which he sealed the win for his round after serving as the anchor. In his second event of the night, Smith took part in the Turning Stone Resort Pass and Score before closing out with the Dunkin’ Donuts Breakaway Relay.
“One of my fears was embarrassing myself by falling or completely missing the net on a shot,” Smith laughed. “It was a pretty laid-back event, but as a few guys and I were waiting our turns, we talked some strategy and shared advice.”
While Smith is excited to be kicking off the second half of the season with the Amerks on Friday night, he will never forget his first opportunity to play and be recognized among the league’s best.
“The whole weekend was a lot of fun,” Smith said. “It was neat getting to know some of the guys we have been playing over the season and some of the other players from the Western Conference. I am looking forward to hopefully returning to some of these types of league events in my future and do it all over again.”