Lee Smith, in his 22nd year as Eden Prairie boys’ hockey coach, won his 400th career game earlier this season. He couldn’t have known then about the stress ahead: a much-publicized brawl at the end of his team’s section semifinal victory over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and an overtime win — without three top players as a consequence — in the section final Wednesday over Minnetonka. With Eden Prairie back in the state tournament and looking for its third Class 2A title since 2009, Smith chatted with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand.
Q I don’t want to dwell on the brawl, but how does something like that happen, and what do you learn from it?
A Something like that happens when you have such a great rivalry game. … And there are kids that are ultra-competitive that want to get the puck off the wall for one more chance, and I think our kids took offense to the way they went at one of our best players. I think the emotions of it all got to them. We learned from it that there are consequences. The kids that sat out the Minnetonka game — if you asked them if they paid a severe enough price, when they watched that game go into overtime and watched their team battle, knowing we could have very well used them, I think they learned a lot.
Q How relieved are you — and the players who missed the section final — that you were still able to make it to the state tournament?
A I know the three guys who were out of the game are extremely thankful that the kids were able to bail them out. They wouldn’t want to be scapegoats.
Q Eden Prairie won state titles in 2009 and 2011, both times led by superstars in Nick Leddy and Kyle Rau. Is there a player who can carry you this year?
A We have some high-end guys. [Junior] Michael Graham committed to [Minnesota Duluth]. [Sophomore] Casey Mittelstadt is already committed to the Gophers. We have a supporting cast we like a lot. We have the high-end guys and the guys who have stepped in and played their roles well.
Q How do you survive more than 20 years as a head hockey coach in this pressure-filled day and age?
A We’ve had a good track record of developing our players and getting them to the next level. I think we’ve put a good team on the ice and compete hard every time on the ice. And I think we’re good to our kids — we’re not yellers or screamers.
Q What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in high school hockey during your head coaching tenure?
A I think the speed of the game and the depth of the teams. The game became a lot more of a transition game. The physical element is there, but not like it was. … And these guys train more like NHL or college players in the offseason with the specialization of it all.
Q What is your favorite thing about the state tournament?
A That you can’t buy your way there. It’s something as a group that you really have to commit to doing. … [Former Bloomington Jefferson coach] Tom Saterdalen, someone I always learned from and appreciated, talks about the fact that you never know when you’re going to get back so you should treat all of them like they’re special.