In 55 games with the U.S. National Under-17, former Thunderbirds forward Ty Smilanic notched 21 goals and 18 assists. He had four points in the Under-17 Four Nations Tournament in August, helping the US finish second in the event. Photo by Rena Laverty
Last season marked a successful move for Colorado's Ty Smilanic, a 6-foot-1 forward who was selected to play for the U.S. National Under-17 team after having previously played for the Colorado Thunderbirds. In 55 games with the national team, Smilanic notched 21 goals and 18 assists, including four points in the Under-17 Four Nations Tournament that was held in Germany in mid-August. The US team took second in the event.
This came after he had a strong season with the Thunderbirds, one in which he tallied 25 goals and 35 assists in 37 games. Smilanic, who grew up watching the Colorado Avalanche play and who once was coached by former Avs great Joe Sakic, has caught the eye of the NHL, and is expected to be chosen in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Although he had been looking to play NCAA hockey with the Denver Pioneers, he is no longer committed to the school and is considering his options, including playing at the major junior level.
The Colorado Hockey Hub recently caught up with Smilanic to discuss his first season with the USNTDP and what he hopes to accomplish in the coming season.
Colorado Hockey Hub: I know you're coming off a very successful season with the U.S. National Player Development Team. So I'm wondering what goals you've set for yourself this season as far as your play.
TS: I thought it was a good year for me; a lot of learning experiences along the way. But I definitely feel I can play better this year, and hopefully — more as a team — play better and put up more points individually. So I'm looking forward to this year a lot, just playing the college teams and everything.
CO Hockey Hub: As far as putting more points up on the scoreboard, are you thinking improving special-teams play, or five-on-five? Or, is there something you've set a goal for yourself as far as your shots, or what are you thinking there?
TS: Nothing really specific. I mean, I'd be happy to improve at both five-on-five and on the power play, and maybe a few points shorthanded, too. But whichever way they come and whichever way they are — (they) help the team — sounds pretty good to me.
CO Hockey Hub: How did you feel your playing progressed last season? Were you pretty happy with the way it developed over the course of the year?
TS: I was, especially the first couple months. Two, three, four months, it was a feeling-out process, and getting adjusted to not playing youth hockey anymore and playing in the USHL. As the year went on, I definitely feel I progressed as a player and as a person. So, I'm happy with the ways that I developed over the year.
CO Hockey Hub: What's your favorite memory from last year? Do you have one?
TS: I do. There are a few good ones, but I'll stick to an international one. We played Russia at our home rink and got a good win against them, 4-2. I actually got a goal that game and it was a fun game. That was one of the more filled games we had at our home arena, so the emotions were really high and we ended up getting a win, which is really cool.
TS: They had me skate with a figure skating coach in hockey gear before I actually skated. So I did that for a couple weeks then went straight into hockey with a stick. It was more a feeling-out process. For sure, my dad tells me of Joe Sakic lifting the Cup in 2001 and how it made him fall in love with the game and how it led down to me when I was born a year later.
CO Hockey Hub: Joe Sakic became your coach when you were 8 years old. Can you talk about what that was like and what impact it had on your development as a player at such a young age?
TS: To be honest with you, I wish I got to have him as a coach when I was a little bit older. I think I would have appreciated it a little bit more. But even as a young kid, seeing how he carries himself as a person off the ice, that was definitely the biggest thing for me, because he sits there as an all-time great and you'd never guess it if he didn't know who he was just by the way he handles himself. That for sure left a lasting impression on me.
CO Hockey Hub: I was looking at some of your history and I noticed you've kind of bounced around a little bit as your playing has progressed. You were in Michigan for a little bit with the Little Caesars and the Bantam Triple A. Then you came back to Colorado and played with the Thunderbirds before you became part of the U.S. National Team. Has moving around presented any challenges for you, either personally or playing wise?
TS: Yes, and that's been good for me. It's changed me as a person, going to new schools and meeting new people. And I think it was important for me not to get too comfortable with the situation that I had in Colorado, and instead going out and seeing all the talent that's around the country and seeing how hard it is really to get to the next level. Moving away from Colorado when I was 12, it was really important for me to see what hockey was like on the East Coast and how good kids really were. Also, it was an awesome experience for me and my family. It's an experience I definitely don't regret.
CO Hockey Hub: It's interesting you say that because I wanted to ask you about that. When the Avs won the Cup, hockey in Colorado wasn't really a big thing in terms of feeding the top college programs and junior programs, and even pro leagues. Having traveled to the extent you have, how do you think Colorado hockey stacks up now against some of the big states like Minnesota and Michigan?
TS: I still don't think it's there quite yet, and I'm not sure if it'll ever get there but it's for sure getting better in Colorado. It's not as uncommon to see a Colorado kid playing in the USHL or playing college hockey. That's definitely cool to see and it's cool for me to be part of that movement.
CO Hockey Hub: What do you think Colorado league coordinators need to do to elevate the game in the state to match those top programs in Michigan and Minnesota? Is there anything specific?
TS: I think if I knew the answer, they would too but there's no sure answers. It's just kids falling in love with the game. When the Avs are doing good, that obviously gets a lot more people interested in the game. I really just have to say that if the Colorado Avalanche are playing well, that'll get more kids interested in the area and build off from there.
"Yes, they are, but that might not be the same answer here (in) a year (laughs). But as of now they are."
on being projected
as a 2020 NHL draftee
CO Hockey Hub: I think you alluded to this earlier when you said the Avs may not be your favorite team in a year. This coming year is a big one for you as you're expected to be to be picked in the 2020 NHL draft; are there any teams you hope come calling?
TS: To be honest with you, not really. Obviously if Colorado was interested that'd mean a lot to me, but I would be very happy with any team that gave a call, or showed interest in me, and was willing to pick and develop me. As far as that, no, it's not any specific teams.
CO Hockey Hub: The other big thing you've got coming up is that you have to decide whether to go to the major junior route or go NCAA. Have you given any more thought to that? I know at one point you were signed with the Pioneers, but I don't think that is applicable anymore. So I'm wondering what you're leaning toward.
TS: I'm leaning more toward college, but as far as which college that's still a hard decision that I'll make a little bit later down the road. But it's been an awesome experience going to colleges, and visiting and seeing the culture that each college brings and how each college is so different from the other. When that decision needs to be made, it'll be a tough one but I hope that I make the right decision.
CO Hockey Hub: Could you tell me maybe what the three ones that are in the lead currently are that you're looking at?
TS: There are too many good schools for me to narrow it down. Obviously it'd still mean a lot for me to go to my hometown school at DU, and Michigan is obviously a pretty cool one given that I am already out here, but there's still not too many front runners. There are a lot of good schools and hard decisions.