Hawks' Smith tuning up the playoffs

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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.

The shrine to the Whalers still hangs, untouched, in his older brother's bedroom in Avon. A shirt from the last game. A team photo. The Whalers schedule from the last season. Both home and away Whalers jerseys.

"It's been 17 years. Seventeen years," his brother Chris said. "Every April 13, I wake up in a bad mood."

The team was gone but Ben Smith's hockey life continued. He was one of those kids who was bigger and stronger than the other kids his age, so he dominated at a young age. He was the best player on his youth hockey team, which is saying something because he skated on a line with Max Pacioretty and Cam Atkinson.

"He's always been a gentle giant. I've never seen someone care about other people more than he does," Atkinson told ESPN The Magazine on Saturday afternoon. "He has such a good heart. He literally doesn't have a mean bone inside of him. Even in the playoffs."

Other kids eventually caught up to Smith's size, but that's when his parents' work ethic kicked in. His mom became a concert pianist by practicing piano six hours a day. His dad put himself through Juilliard by earning money playing the organ in churches.

Smith emulated that work ethic on the ice. Smith put in four years at Boston College, where he scored 57 goals in 165 games. As he did as a youth player, he spent time on a pretty darn good line, with the Carolina Hurricanes' Nathan Gerbe and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Brian Gibbons.

So, it shouldn't come as a great shock that Smith has worked his way onto another talented line, the best since his days with the Connecticut Yankees. Smith has graduated from the fourth line on the Blackhawks into a role centering Sharp and Kane, where he's the current placeholder of the ever-rotating No. 2 center spot.

The story of a Stanley Cup champion often includes a chapter about a young player who is growing and emerging as a key contributor and complements the core players. It's almost a necessity with so much parity in today's NHL.

If Smith, who has three points in seven playoff games, becomes that player this spring for Chicago, that's a really good sign for the Blackhawks. You know the Chicago stars will have their moments, but contributions from guys such as Smith are often the tipping point.?

"It's huge. A lot of people talk about the core, but to win a Stanley Cup, you need 25 guys," said Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. "Smitty's been unbelievable for us this year, throughout the whole season. ... He's been huge in different aspects, killing penalties, standing in front of the net on the power play when needed, doing all the little things that you need players to do to win."

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