TROY — There’s no ice sheet at RPI’s Houston Field House this week, the concrete floor of the Engineers’ hockey arena left bare to set up dozens of tables and chairs for a school function.
Dave Smith, from the tiny farming community of Arthur in central Ontario, Canada, looked at the concrete floor on Thursday afternoon and vowed to make something grow from it.
RPI introduced the 48-year-old as its new hockey coach, replacing Seth Appert, who was fired after an 8-28-1 campaign in his 11th season with the Engineers.
With just four winning seasons and one NCAA Tournament appearance at RPI during that span, Smith will have his work cut out for him. Based on having brought Canisius College’s hockey program to solid footing over the last 12 years and what was described as a renewed commitment to men’s hockey by RPI, though, he and the school believe he can pull it off.
“When I go home, they ask, what does a hockey coach do at the Division I level? And I tell them I’m a farmer,” Smith said. “You can’t grow grass on this cement floor. You can try. My job is to make conditions right for growth here with the RPI hockey program.
“It doesn’t matter where we are or where we start, we want to grow. We grew for 12 consecutive years at Canisius, and I hope we grow for a long, long time here at RPI.”
“He’s a builder,” RPI athletic director Lee McElroy said. “When he went in [at Canisius], they didn’t even have anywhere to practice 12 years ago, and now they’re a nationally ranked program. And he’s starting at a much better point and situation now.”
Just as Smith referred to the concrete floor, he pointed to the 1954 and 1985 national championship banners hanging from the ceiling, but he inherits a program that is a far cry from those days.
RPI took the uncommon step of hiring Parker Executive Search, a company with experience finding college AD’s and football and basketball coaches, but none in hockey, to help with the initial stage of looking for the next coach.
McElroy said there were over 170 applicants, a list that was a whittled down to 20 before RPI brought in four finalists, Smith, former Engineer player and current UMass assistant coach Ben Barr, Quinnipiac associate head coach Bill Riga and Oswego head coach Ed Gosek.
In another uncommon move, those four were interviewed in front of a panel of 50 people with various involvement in the program, from alumni, students, players, alumni hockey players, staff and season ticket holders.
“When I hired Greg Gattuso [to coach football at UAlbany], we had seven people,” McElroy said. “The reason we had so many [for Smith] is because this is an important hire, not just to the RPI hockey community, but to the university, because in 2019, it will be the 100th year of hockey at RPI. That’s why there were so many people involved.”
What Smith brought to the table was a track record of getting the Canisius program rolling in the right direction.
The Golden Griffins were 171-222-59 in 12 seasons under Smith, including 21-11-7 to clinch their first Atlantic Hockey conference regular-season title this season. Canisius won the Atlantic Hockey tourmanent in 2013 to reach the NCAA East Regional and cracked the national USCHO.com top-25 this season for the first time in program history.
“He had to build it from scratch,” RPI president Shirley Ann Jackson said. “He had to make a way out of no way. They did not even have a hockey rink and had to use a community rink. So for him to build this program to a top-25 program . . . that impressed us.”
“He’s been doing a great job at Canisius building it from the ground,” RPI junior forward Viktor Liljegren said. “He thinks that our program is not broken, and that’s kind of how we see it. We know the talent we have in the room, it just feels like we haven’t really been able to get everything out.”
What Smith faces is a team that just set a program record for most losses in a season and finished 11th in ECAC Hockey.
Still, RPI’s tradition still holds appeal, he said, and he has been given assurances that more money will be directed toward the program.
Jackson said upgrades are scheduled for Houston Field House, which will be financed by a targeted sum of $20 million RPI hopes to raise as part of a capital projects campaign that will be announced in October.
While RPI was doing its research on Smith, he was doing research of his own, calling 15 coaches, including several in the ECACH, to inquire about budget ranges and see how what RPI was offering would compare.
“It was a concern on phase one of my interest in RPI,” Smith said. “As I moved further along and was able to recognize the interest from RPI in me, I started to dig deeper around the country.
“And I can tell you without question, for one, I wouldn’t have taken the job if the emotional commitment wasn’t there, if the physical and financial commitment wasn’t there. I’m very comfortable across all platforms that it’s outstanding.”
Now Smith will begin the process of evaluating the players and picking on his staff. Appert’s assistants Nolan Graham and Bryan Vines have been maintaining the day-to-day duties of the team.
With the theme of growth in mind, he is keeping both the floor and the ceiling within view.
“Right now, we need to get to Lake Placid [for the ECACH final four],” he said. “If you get to Lake Placid, you have a chance to win the ECAC. If you have a chance to win the ECAC, you can win the national championship.
“I see the banners up here. We know what a championship looks like. We just have to get back there and get some positive momentum. Yes, I’m talking about the national championship, because that’s the commitment level that is being made by the school.”