Eden Prairie boys’ hockey coach Lee Smith cannot recall the first of his 500 career victories.
Memories of his first loss, however, remain vivid. Smith, a 27-year-old rookie head coach in 1993-94, got a lesson in gamesmanship from St. Louis Park bench boss John Barger.
During the Orioles’ 3-2 overtime victory, Barger called talented junior Erik Rasmussen to the bench for a talk. Smith knew Rasmussen was Barger’s workhorse, a player who often skated a regular shift at forward before dropping back to defense for additional ice time.
Smith smelled a rat.
“I asked the refs if they were taking a timeout,” Smith said. “Barger hears that and yells, ‘Shut up; you’re coaching your first game.’ I got schooled right away.”
Smith became a professor. His Eagles reached the Class 2A state tournament 10 times and won state titles in 2009 and 2011. This season’s talent-laden team could add to those totals. In the meantime, the Eagles defeated St. Michael-Albertville 5-4 on Jan. 18 to clinch Smith’s milestone victory.
“My goal was always to make us a program that would be up there with Edina and Bloomington Jefferson,” said Smith, now 54 and the 16th coach to win 500 career games. “We wanted to be relevant.”
Eden Prairie took a big step toward Smith’s goal during his first season with what he called a “program-changing win” against a solid Burnsville team. The victory triggered a late-season run to the Section 6 quarterfinals, which the Eagles lost in overtime.
Relevant also is the word Smith used to describe his philosophies on running practices, finding new ways to teach players while maintaining an upbeat, competitive atmosphere.
Accountability is another mainstay of Smith’s coaching. Nowadays, players “drop a pin” at night, using their smartphones to give Smith their address, thereby ensuring they are home by curfew. His phone typically blows up with notifications around 10:30 to 11 p.m.
“Our better teams are the ones who buy in to those sorts of things and take pride in the little things,” Smith said.
Back when he started, Smith shoveled quarters into a pay phone slot and called players’ homes.
“Some of them had their parents answer and say, ‘Oh, he’s in bed,’ ” Smith said. “I guess they got smarter.”