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A new set of eyes: Matt Smaby has long prepared to coach, and he’s impressing UND’s staff

GRAND FORKS -- Matt Smaby started keeping notebooks when he was in Germany. Even though he had three or four years left in his pro hockey playing career, Smaby knew he wanted to be a coach someday. So, he wanted to prepare for it. Smaby bought no...

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University of North Dakota volunteer assistant coach Matt Smaby (second from left) looks on behind the bench during a recent UND hockey game against Wisconsin. Russell Hons / Special To Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS -- Matt Smaby started keeping notebooks when he was in Germany.

Even though he had three or four years left in his pro hockey playing career, Smaby knew he wanted to be a coach someday. So, he wanted to prepare for it.

Smaby bought notebooks and started writing down everything.

He wrote down drills that he liked.

He kept notes about playing systems.

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He wrote about the coaches. He documented things past coaches did that he liked, and he documented things he didn’t like.

By the time he was done, he filled four or five notebooks. He even punched notes in on his phone from time to time when thoughts came up.

On top of that, Smaby asked the coaching staff at EHC Munchen if he could sit in on video sessions as they broke down opponents’ power plays. As one of the team’s captains, they let him.

“That’s when my process of being a coach started,” Smaby said. “It started long before I was done playing.”

Smaby retired in the summer of 2017 and returned to his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, to finish his degree. He also joined the staff as a student assistant to try to continue his coaching development.

While NCAA rules limit what he can do with the players, it didn’t take Smaby long to impress the veteran UND coaching staff.

That’s why head coach Brad Berry offered Smaby a chance to be on the bench during the third periods of games this season -- something that’s rarely, if ever, happened for volunteer coaches at UND.

“When Bubs (Berry) brought this idea to me, I was kind of shocked in the best possible way,” said Smaby, who watches the first two periods from the press box with the team’s video staff. “I was excited about it. It’s one thing to watch a game from the press box and analyze it. It’s a totally different thing being back behind the bench and around the guys. There are some restrictions of what I can and can’t do, but I really enjoy being back there. Hopefully I can contribute in any way possible.”

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Berry said that Smaby, a 34-year-old former UND captain, has brought a different perspective to the coaching staff -- both on and off the ice.

“We always have our own ideas of what we see as a group,” Berry said. “Now, you see a fresh set of eyes looking at the game with a different perspective, someone who has recently retired from the game.

“The other part is that he bridges the gap -- and I don’t want to say I’m really old but I am -- he bridges the gap from our young players to our coaching staff, which all of us are a little bit older. He bridges that communication gap or that generation camp with our players and I think that’s a big deal.”

Smaby came to UND from Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School. He was part of an influx of talent from Shattuck that included future NHLers Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, Drew Stafford, Chris Porter, Taylor Chorney, Chay Genoway and Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan.

Smaby, known for his punishing style of play, was the captain of UND’s 2005-06 team that included 10 NHLers: Toews, Stafford, Travis Zajac, T.J. Oshie, Brian Lee, Porter, Chorney, Matt Watkins, Joe Finley and Smaby himself, who played four years with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I really liked the coaches I had at UND,” Smaby said. “I had (Dean) Blais before he left. That was an interesting experience. I had Hak (Dave Hakstol) and Bubs the whole time I was here. They’re both really, really good coaches and really good people.

“As I was wrapping up my playing career, I was thinking about what I wanted to be like as a coach and what aspects of coaching I respected. Those are two of the guys I thought of. They’re awesome guys and really good coaches. They’re very different in their approach. There are so many different ways to be successful as a coach.”

Smaby is expected to graduate this spring. After that, he’s not sure what the future holds, but he knows he wants to coach.

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In the meantime, he’s hoping UND will make a run this season.

“I’m going to enjoy every moment,” Smaby said. “We have great coaches, who are great people, and we have great players as well. It has been a treat to be with them. They’re invigorating and refreshing. One of the most rewarding things is to watch the guys blossom into adults and into great hockey players.”

Related Topics: COLLEGE HOCKEY
Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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