It’s the end of an era for the Stettler Lightning, who not only lose four of its oldest players who have aged out of the league, but also their head coach, Doug Smith, who retires this year.
Despite the hopes of players and parents that the powerful year had by the Lightning would convince Smith to keep on as coach, he declined the powerful pull and stuck to his decision – though he said it wasn’t easy.
He’s staying on as general manager with the team for now, but will “eventually foster that job out, too,” he said.
He praised this year’s team for being a “terrific bunch that got along on and off the ice,” which helped the team flourish because when the games were rough, instead of pointing fingers and recriminations, it was a group of young men buoying each other up.
For Smith, though, the change is big. Since he started coaching in 1984 in Byemoor, the Stettler-area man has been behind the coach’s bench for some team in some capacity, and with the Lightning now for the past 16 years.
A need for a coach for his own sons’ hockey leagues got him started but it was a love of the sport that kept him going long after his kids were done with hockey. After moving up from Byemoor to Bantam hockey in Stettler in 1989, he moved on to the minors in 1994 and coached the Chill.
Four years later, he started coaching the Lightning. Things have changed significantly over the years, he noted.
“I got older,” he said with a laugh. “It was fairly basic back then. There wasn’t as much emphasis on skill training (as there is now).”
He said hockey players today are much better than they were, skill-wise, than when he started coaching simply due to the emphasis on the individual skills.
“Every year, as a coach, you realized you had to be more and more technical and teach tactics,” he said.
“One thing I’ve tried to keep constant is the fun and enjoyment. I think I’ve succeeded.”
He learned his coaching skills from local greats who had reached out and mentored him when he started coaching – Don Falkenberg and Les Schwartz. In turn, he’s mentored his assistant coaches as their head coach and hopes they’ll someday return the favour to others.
As head coach, Smith said he kept a bit of a distance from the players, letting the assistant coaches be the “buddy coaches” so when things got rough, he could “be the hammer.” Still, though, as the Lightning Wind-up wound down on Friday, June 6, the hugs and cheers from the players revealed that the distance Smith kept between him and them wasn’t as great as imagined.
“This is probably the highest some of them will play,” Smith said of the Lightning’s players. “We play as hard as AA but hold 9-5 (jobs or schooling). It’s good to see guys still have a love for the game all the while getting an education or working trades.”
As player and parent after player and parent came to bid their farewells to Smith, it was obvious that he was going to be missed by his players, fellow coaches, and parents.
“We’ve got a good team,” Smith said. “We’ll do really great next season.”
At the Windup, it was revealed that making the playoffs this year, where the Lightning lost to Blackfalds, was a financial boom for the team. Door fees collected during the playoffs beat out regular season door fees three times over, and the extra money meant each player was able to keep his jersey at the end of the season.
Volunteerism amongst hockey fans and parents also helped the season go off without a hitch, as parents volunteered as score keepers, board operators, doormen and in other related chores.
A new head coach hasn’t been hired for the Lightning as of yet, but the hopes is to have one in place shortly before the new season begins in the fall.