Smutek: "I don't play hockey; I'm a hockey player"
December 30, 2020 - 11:00 am
Smutek: “I don’t play hockey; I’m a hockey player”
Rivermen defenseman nowhere near done at 30
Peoria, IL – With the Southern Professional Hockey League season having officially started, fans can finally start watching their respective teams begin the chase for the coveted President’s Cup. Well, only five fan bases can actually root for their teams. The other five (which includes Peoria) sit idle, either ejecting themselves from the SPHL for a year, or watching some of their favorite Rivermen players in different jerseys as these individuals look to keep their careers going while the lights inside Carver Arena remain off.
Of course, with half of the league not playing due to the current global climate, a bevy of players who would otherwise be on the ice are still waiting for the opportunity to return to what they love. When it comes to the Rivermen roster, there is perhaps no player who loves the game of hockey, along with all that being a minor league hockey player entails, more than Skyler Smutek.
The now 30-year-old Renton, WA product knows adversity all too well. He’s dealt with injuries and roster cuts at the junior, collegiate, and professional level. Never before however, did Smutek deal with a global pandemic. Skyler hopped on the bus for a trip with his teammates to Fayetteville back in March, where he expected to return to the lineup after being sidelined several weeks with a concussion. On the night of traveling to North Carolina, the news of COVID continued to surge through both the political and sports landscape.
“There was definitely an eerie feeling to that trip,” said Smutek. “I was focused on playing well my first weekend back and tried to remain ready to play, but was also very aware things might fall apart and we wouldn’t play at all. It didn’t feel real and it happened so fast that I was sort of in denial about it for months.”
Things would indeed fall apart later Thursday night; the same day the team arrived in Fayetteville and practiced for what was scheduled to be a three game weekend with the Marksmen would also be the same day the SPHL, along with every other professional hockey league in North America, paused their seasons.
As all know by now, the announcement of the season being paused was followed by the league’s decision to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 season just 48 hours later. That Monday, Rivermen players met back at the arena for what served as a final dismissal from Rivermen Head Coach Jean-Guy Trudel.
“It was so crazy,” said Smutek. “It’s like a brutal, not fun dream to be in. It doesn’t even seem real still. It happened so fast. So much information to process in such a weird way to do it. You’re trying to listen to coach talk Monday when we came back and you can’t help but sit there still thinking ‘really ?’, like this is actually happening?”
Players and staff alike were thrown into disarray where within the span of just a few days, everyone needed to figure out their next steps without panicking. Fortunately for Skyler, the mindset of a hockey player came into play to help with the process.
“We go through so many practices and games during the season that you learn to turn the page quickly,” Smutek said. “So when the announcement came that we were done, I tried to shift my mind to training for next season and what I can do to make my offseason productive.”
Skyler has spent the bulk of his offseason in Maryland, but made the venture to Texas in June to connect with a former assistant coach from his junior playing career.
“My old coach is training hockey players and other athletes with a team out of Austin, TX. He sends me workouts everyday on an app and we’re using muscle oxygen monitors to track and improve my performance. A lot of it is working with a machine called a SpiroTiger®, which basically trains every muscle you use to breathe, so your lungs, diaphragm and core.”
While Smutek spent time with an old assistant coach and has spent his entire career as a hockey player, the first year Rivermen does see a future in being behind the bench once his playing days come to a close. He was offered an assistant coaching position in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) a few years back, but declined in an effort to keep playing. It’s something he hopes to one day circle back to, and already has somewhat of a foundation developed.
“I would emulate some of my coaching off of coach Trudel, but have a Pete Carroll style too,” Smutek explained. I love Guy’s (Trudel) attention to detail and you can learn a ton from him. I would steal most of his systems. I also love Pete Carroll’s always compete philosophy. You’re either competing to get better at everything or you’re not.”
Skyler also enjoys doing some behind the scenes work, making several player highlight videos for both teammates and friends around the league. It’s a side project he calls “Smutech Productions,” and he’s had fun with that.
Across 35 games in a Rivermen jersey, Smutek registered 10 assists and 120 penalty minutes. He’s 30 years of age, but has played just three seasons professionally. As mentioned earlier, there is perhaps no player who loves the game of hockey, along with all that being a minor league hockey player entails, more than Skyler Smutek. The “all that being a minor league hockey player entails” part is referencing the countless, and often thankless requests fulfilled by players. From visiting children’s hospitals and elementary schools, to running around fulfilling fan requests on Rivermen Day or getting up at six in the morning to do a morning news interview; if Smutek was asked, he always obliged. Never complaining. Never pawning the task off to another player. He was an ambassador for the team and a part of the Rivermen fabric embedded in the Peoria community.
His love of the game and of the fans did not go unrecognized. At the Rivermen Booster Club’s end of the year awards ceremony, Skyler was presented with the Pete BardezBanian Award, given to the most popular player on the team as voted by the Booster Club members.
“I was happy to have a home again,” an emotional Smutek uttered. “It had been such a long time since I had a home. I was excited to be somewhere that I felt like everyone wanted me to be. The last time I truly felt a part of an organization in all aspects was with my junior team in 2011. I know the Rivermen are important to a lot of people and I would do anything I can to help this team win a championship. I remember what it was like to be one of the kids who thought hockey players were the coolest thing in the world and I wanted to be them, so when I get a chance to give back, I always want to contribute.”
That five-year-old who sat watching the glory years of Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, and a host of other players from his childhood favorite-Detroit Red Wings now stands on his own two skates as a professional hockey player. The body often goes before the mind. Ultimately, every player takes their last shift. In most SPHL cases, 30 is right around the age of retirement. When asked about this, Smutek, 30, mentions the names of two hockey icons.
Joe Thornton. Jarmoir Jagr.
“I’m willing to put the work and the time in to get better. We’re gonna see where that levels out at. So next year, the year after, as long as I’m financially able to keep going and my body doesn’t give out on me, I can’t see myself doing anything else anytime soon. I’ve been feeling this way since I was 5 years old so I don’t see that mindset changing. Look at (Jaromir) Jagr. That guy has been playing for over 30 years. I’m not saying or comparing myself to anything close to Jagr. All I’m saying is if another human can play for that long, maybe I can give it a try.”
One more thing. The Washington state native who grew up a Red Wings fan may have found a new favorite team.
“Well as of recently, everyone has to be afraid of the Kraken,” said Smutek when referring to the NHL’s newest franchise. “Honestly when I first saw their logo, I forgot how much this meant to me. Growing up in Washington, I remembered how much I wanted to see an NHL team nearby. That logo is sick!”