TROY — All along, RPI athletic director Lee McIlroy insisted that Dave Smith was the RPI men’s hockey coach, even though Smith’s five-year contract expired at the end of the 2021-22 academic year in May.
Three months later, Smith is firmly entrenched as the Engineers coach.
The school announced Thursday that Smith signed a five-year extension to be the Engineers’ head coach. The deal put an end to speculation regarding Smith’s future.
“I’ve said to many of you that Dave Smith is our coach,” McElroy said during a news conference late Thursday afternoon at Houston Field House. “But anytime you’re in a contracting situation, particularly with a renewal, there are a lot of things that need to be worked out. And it’s very, very extensive, very involved and very comprehensive. So we don’t look at it this [taking] time, we look at it as making the appropriate decision. And we made the right decision, obviously, because he’s got the five-year extension.”
Smith is happy that the situation has been resolved. He was never worried about his job status.
“My first feeling is [I’m] really just grateful and appreciative of the opportunity to continue to build what we’ve started,” Smith said. “Relief, it’s a word that’s in the description, but it’s not at the top. It’s just an appreciation. It’s an excitement to keep building, and really looking forward to a road ahead.”
Speculation on Smith’s future was rampant during the summer. Some were wondering if the school was waiting to announce it when Martin Schmidt replaced Shirley Jackson as RPI president on July 1.
When the team’s 2022-23 schedule was initially released on June 14, there wasn’t a quote from Smith. When someone from the Capital Region media asked RPI about that, an updated press release was issued with a Smith comment.
Even though Smith didn’t have a contract, he continued to work and prepare for the upcoming season.
“I never, ever checked out,” Smith said. “I never stopped working for the program. I feel this is the right place for me and my family. Is there doubt? I think when you don’t have a contract in ink, you always wonder, but I trusted the process. I trusted what Dr. McElroy was telling me, and we just kept working. We talked with the players about it and said, ‘Hey, so it’s a little bit different. But you’re hearing the right words, let’s trust the process.’”
Smith spoke with his players after the deal was done.
“I actually had the contract in my hand, and it was signed,” Smith said. “And I told them, and I did tell them that I told my wife first. Then I told them [and] they were happy. It was actually a fairly emotional moment for me because of the care that and the support that they have given. But I absolutely went right to them. And then it was all right, let’s get on to the next thing that we have to do.”
After spending 12 years as head coach at Canisius, Smith was hired by RPI in April 2017 following the dismissal of Seth Appert. The team has steadily improved under Smith, going from six wins in 2017-18 to 10 in 2018-19 to 17 in 2019-20 to 18 last season. The Engineers didn’t play in 2020-21 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Engineers have reached the ECAC Hockey tournament best-of-three quarterfinals in each of the last two seasons they played. They lost to Harvard in three games last March. The 2020 quarterfinals were canceled because of the pandemic.
With the contract situation settled, Smith and the Engineers can now focus on preparing for the season. The open with exhibition games at Houston Field House against Colgate (Oct. 1) and the University of Toronto (Oct. 2) before opening the regular season at home Oct. 7 against Mercyhurst.
“It doesn’t actually change my day-to-day,” Smith said. “We’ve had a five-year plan, a 10-year plan and a two-day plan the whole time. We’re just continuing on. We’ve got a great staff [of assistant coaches]. Coach [Chuck] Weber, coach [Mathais] Lange, those guys have been here. We’ve adjusted some things that are day-to-day as if we were going to be here.
“We’re just grateful for the opportunity. We get to lead a program that has history and tradition, a strong alumni base, guys that have played in the NHL, guys that are leading the world in their businesses and are some of the best human beings ever. I’m very fortunate to be the head coach of this program.”