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Smith a star for surging River Hawks

C.J. Smith traveled a long way to play at Lowell, but that hasn’t stopped him from being dynamic on the ice (George DeLuca/Connector)

Kyle Gaudette
Connector Editor

C.J. Smith knew growing up in the basketball- and baseball-driven state of Iowa that he would spend more time traveling to his hockey games than actually playing them. So when UMass Lowell head coach Norm Bazin reached out to offer Smith a scholarship, the 1,302-mile journey from Des Moines to Lowell felt like nothing more than a blink.

Doomed to forever be in the shadow of Boston College, Boston University and the Minutemen in Amherst, for hockey star C.J. Smith, UMass Lowell was a destination.

“I played juniors with [UMass Lowell alum] Christian Folin,” said Smith. “I knew how much he loved the program and how much he respected the coaches, so he really sold me on it. I had a school out in Minnesota back home and here [that] were my two choices. I didn’t even visit Lowell, actually, before I committed; I just knew this was the right place for me.”

The stats show that Smith could not have been more right.

The UMass Lowell River Hawks traveled to the TD Garden to compete in their fourth consecutive Hockey East Championship Game largely because of the play of Smith. Last year as a freshmen, Smith led the team with 16 goals and 35 points, and has matched that output this season, leading the team with 17 goals and 38 points. He is the first to lead the River Hawks in points in back to back season since Ed McGrane did it during the 2000-02 seasons.

If you’re struggling to think of NHL guys who have come from Iowa, don’t worry because there are not many. In fact, there is only one. 2001 Boston College grad Scott Clemmensen was a goalie for the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers from 2001-15. Just like Smith, Clemmensen grew up in the capital Des Moines.

“There’s actually a USHL team called the Des Moines Buccaneers in Iowa,” said Smith. “I grew up watching them and got into it, and the game really interested me. So my dad got me into it. I started at a young age, and I just love the game. Playing juniors, our closest game was about two hours away in either Omaha or Waterloo. Definitely on the weekends there was a lot of traveling. We had to go to Chicago a lot. We were playing a lot of games in a short amount of time, but it was really fun.”

“I don’t think I can put a number on the amount of miles I must have traveled,” said a smiling Smith. “But it’s definitely up there.”

While Smith is not thinking about the NHL just yet, the change from college to pros is one that would not faze him. Smith is used to change, being the first person in the family to take up hockey.

“I’m the first one to play in the family, so it’s pretty unique,” said Smith. “My parents knew how passionate I was for the game. They let me make my own decisions, but they definitely pushed me to make sure I was working towards what I wanted to be.”

Before coming to UMass Lowell, Smith tallied 23 goals and 17 assists in 46 games for the Chicago Steel in the USHL. His best season actually came two years prior, when he put up 30 goals and 29 assists in 60 games with the Austin Bruins in the NAHL.

Smith relies on his speed on the ice to blow past defenders on his way to the puck, but he also has the creativity to make room when there is none – something that has benefited both his game as well as his teammates.

For his two years at UMass Lowell, Smith has been paired on a line with junior teammate Joe Gambardella. This year Gambardella leads the team with 25 assists, and is third on the team with 32 points. In their Hockey East tournament series sweep of Boston University, their line combined for seven points.

“It’s absolutely an unbelievable experience playing with C.J. and I could not be more grateful,” said Gambardella. “His skill, passion and work ethic is insane. He creates space when there is none, and his creativity all over the ice is just tremendous. I think if you put C.J. with anyone on any team he’s going to make that person so much better with his ability to move with and without the puck. He’s just a great guy, and he’ll be a lifelong friend of mine.”

Smith is a leader and offensive powerhouse for UMass Lowell, and he is still only a sophomore. His 37 points this season place him ninth in Hockey East in scoring. Former NHLer Jon Morris set the all-time UMass Lowell scoring record with his 177 points from 1984-88. Smith currently stands at 72 with his sophomore season still underway. With two seasons left for Smith, Morris’ record is not out of the question.

Smith is majoring in chemistry at Lowell, but there is no formula needed to figure out his skill on the ice. Smith is a star, and his play down the stretch will be a huge factor in determining how far the River Hawks will go in the NCAA tournament.

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