Hawks' Smith tuning up the playoffs


CHICAGO -- If it weren't for the Hartford Whalers, chances are Chicago Blackhawks forward Ben Smith wouldn't be playing hockey right now. And considering his important role as the team's new No. 2 center, on a line with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, Blackhawks fans might want to thank the Whalers for the assist.

Smith, you see, comes from a family of musicians. His parents both went to the Juilliard School, one of the most prestigious performing arts schools in the world.

His father, Larry Allen Smith, is a composer who teaches composition at the University of Hartford. His experiences guest conducting orchestras have taken him all over the world, including to Brazil, Croatia, Germany and Poland. The New York Times once called him a "young composer of great gifts." He's also a poet, for good measure.

Smith's mother, Marguerita, was a concert pianist who also took time to raise four boys. She's now teaching piano at an all-girls prep school in Connecticut.

Smith's oldest brother, James, is a professional oboist, touring all over the world.

Smith has an uncle who is the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

And then there's Ben. Three years of classical guitar lessons, and that was that.

"Three years of lessons and I wanted to stop," Smith told ESPN The Magazine on Saturday. "Now I regret it every day. I wish I could play."

Born in North Carolina, Smith moved with his family to Avon, Connecticut, when he was 3 years old. It just happened that the Whalers practiced nearby at Avon Old Farms. The family next door had Whalers season tickets and invited this family of musicians to join them at games. Soon, those season tickets were being split between the two families.

"My dad kind of fell in love with it," Smith said, and suddenly hockey was being mixed in with music. "All four of us at one point played hockey."

The Whalers seats were great. Four rows up from the penalty box. Section 114. There was usually a trip to the mall before the game, maybe some Wendy's for dinner. And always the postgame radio show on the drive home, with play-by-play legend Chuck Kaiton narrating the way.

This portion of the story ends badly, as it does for all Whalers fans. Smith was 9 years old when the team moved and became the Carolina Hurricanes. He had his own hockey game on the night of the last Whalers home game, so his mom and brother Chris went for him. He still remembers his mom selling the other two tickets but not cashing in on the historic night.

"Two Hartford Whalers fans got to go to the last game for face value," he said, smiling.

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