Smith and Elkin’s longstanding friendship could be a boon for Coyotes this season
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Training camp practice had just ended at Gila River Arena. The Coyotes’ players and coaches were ambling on skates through the tunnel that leads directly from the team’s bench to the locker room.
Goalie coach Jon Elkin had a 50-foot lead on goalie Mike Smith, but he hadn’t gained enough distance to escape the friendly barbs Smith was firing his way on a variety of topics.
“There’s a whole list of things he ribs me about, but if I remembered them, that would mean he’s getting to me,” Elkin said, smiling. “I don’t remember anything he says. I just remember the parts of his game that need improvement.”
When longtime Coyotes goalie coach and executive Sean Burke left the organization this summer, there was fear that Smith might lose his way and confidence without the man fans affectionately referred to as the goalie whisperer. Smith still has to prove he is as prepared for this season as he says he is — and the Coyotes need to defend better in front of him than they did last season — but from a comfort standpoint, there is no arrangement the Coyotes could have concocted that could have eased Smith’s mind more than the current one.
“We give each other the gears all the time,” Smith said. “We’ve been working together for so long now that it’s more than just work. We’ve become friends.
“Sometimes he bugs me to the boiling point and we’re both intense guys that sometimes clash a little bit, but we forgive each other easily and there is nobody who is easier for me to talk to outside my family.”
As a kid, Smith was attending former minor league goalie Chris Clifford’s goalie school in Kingston, Ontario when Clifford came to Smith’s parents and told them there was nothing further they could do for Smith. He needed to go to a more elite school.
After a couple years of experimentation in Toronto, Smith got word of Elkin’s school, which has been running since 1984 when Elkin was 16 years old, and has been based in Toronto for the last 19 years.
“It was quite a production,” said Smith, 33, who doesn’t remember when he met Elkin but knows he was less than 10 years old. “There were like 10 nets on the ice and you’d get a two-hour time slot with three other goalies in your group and maybe 40 to 50 goalies on the ice at the time. It was a lot of skating, a lot of movement drills and by the time you were done at the end of the day, you were exhausted.
“Jon’s come a long way since those days. He used to be more intense — kind of a drill sergeant — but it was OK because you got so much better going to that school. I think to this day, that’s why kids keep going back to Jon. You get fit and you get better. In one week, you see such a difference.”
As he grew older, Smith also worked as an instructor at Elkin’s camps. He said that perspective deepened his understanding of the position, but the Smith-Elkin relationship only grew closer when Smith turned pro and spent the first eight years of his career between the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
“We got pretty tight that first year with the (OHL’s Kingston) Frontenacs,” Elkin said. “It was still a coach-student relationship but we went through a lot of ups and downs trying to figure his game out.”
Smith finished with a career-worst 3.78 goals against average and a career-worst .881 save percentage that season, leading him to lean on Elkin’s advice all the more.
“Sometimes it’s good to hear it from someone who knows you really well, but the thing about Mike is that he’s one hell of a student,” Elkin said. “He’ll challenge you and that can be good, too, but when you come to an agreement that makes sense, he’ll just go balls out to implement it. He’s got a great attitude about work and he’s got the athletic ability to implement whatever you want. That’s a dream to work with a guy like that.”
Elkin didn’t interfere much last season as Smith struggled through a brutal start that had him among the league’s worst goalies in save percentage and goals against average.
“It doesn’t make any sense to have two guys in your ear. It’s just confusing and Sean did an amazing job with Mike,” Elkin said. “But I checked in every two to three months with a couple reminders or a couple things I was seeing.
“It’s definitely nice now to get back to sort of what we were doing in juniors where I can get on the ice and work on some things; watch games and give feedback. At least it’s been enjoyable for me. I don’t know about him.”
Smith insists the returns are just as great for him.
“It’s not like we go out for ice cream, but he’s like Uncle Jon. I can talk to him about anything,” Smith said. “I can bust his chops and he can take it and give it back to me. It’s fun, but we also have a lot of respect for each other.”
What exactly Smith ribs Elkin about is largely a secret.
“That’s not something that needs to be printed,” Smith said, “But he is still single. That just might be one thing.”
Elkin won’t be with the Coyotes or Smith on a daily basis this season. His contract calls for him to be with the team somewhere between 18 and 20 days per month, but he will watch games, analyze tape and talk with Smith on the days he is back in Toronto.
Smith calls it the perfect arrangement.
“I don’t like to see him that much so it’s important he is away a little bit,” Smith, pausing for comedic effect. “It’s been really good having him here. I’m in a good spot mentally, I feel good about where I’m at with my game and the stuff we’ve been working on is a work in progress, but I’ve got a good handle on my game at the start of the season.
“That probably hasn’t been the case the past couple of seasons.”