Charles W. "Lefty" Smith Jr., the patriarch of University of Notre Dame ice hockey after bringing the Irish program into the modern era beginning in 1968-69 and spending 19 seasons as Irish head coach, died yesterday of natural causes in his South Bend, Ind., home. He was 81.
After his final season as Notre Dame head coach in 1986-87, Smith became facilities manager at the University's Loftus Sports Center (now part of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex) until retiring from that role last month (he had been the athletics department's longest-tenured employee at the time of his retirement). He took part in the ceremonial opening faceoff in October at the first game in the new Compton Family Ice Arena—and dedication festivities had been scheduled for Feb. 3-4 to honor Smith and the Compton Family Ice Arena rink that bears his name.
"It is difficult to imagine Notre Dame without Charles 'Lefty' Smith," said Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick. "From the time I attended my first hockey game as a freshman to the time I spent with him at his retirement party a few weeks ago, Lefty had been a prominent, colorful and impactful fixture at our University. Lefty's legacy will be measured not so much in the program he built or the games hewon, but rather the thousands of lives he touched as a coach, teacher, administrator, father and husband--a legacy that we had the privilege of honoring with him in naming the Lefty Smith Rink at the Compton Family Ice Arena. We will miss him greatly, but we will never forget him."
Smith came to Notre Dame in 1968 to help start the varsity hockey program and remained the head coach of the Irish for 19 seasons before retiring from coaching in 1987 with 307 career victories. Under his tutelage, Notre Dame produced six All-Americans--Eddie Bumbacco (1973), Bill Nyrop (1973), Jack Brownschidle (1976, 1977), Brian Walsh (1977), Greg Meredith (1980) and Kirt Bjork (1983)--and finished second in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) twice (1972-73, 1976-77). He was named WCHA coach of theyear following the 1972-73 season.
In 1981-82, the Irish moved to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) where Smith guided the Irish to the Great Lakes Invitational Championship and the CCHA championship that season. Among players on that team was former Irish head coach Dave Poulin (current vice president of hockey operations for the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs).
Smith remained the head coach through the 1986-87 season and retired with a career record of 307-320-30. In his 19 seasons, all 126 players who played for him completed their collegiate eligibility and earned college degrees.
Smith served two years as president of the American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) and also coached the Central team at the 1978 National Sports Festival. Eight members of that team would go on to be members of the gold-medal winning 1980 United States Olympic team. In 1992 he was inducted into the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame and in 2003 was named a "Legend of Hockey" by the Hobey Baker Memorial Award Foundation.
He also played an integral role in bringing the International Special Olympics to Notre Dame in 1987 and oversaw 22,000 volunteers and 6,000 Special Olympic athletes from 72 nations during the 12-day event.
Smith and longtime Irish assistant Tim McNeill combined to start the Irish Youth Hockey League that first brought youth hockey to the South Bend area.
Born Jan. 5, 1930, Smith got his start in coaching in South St. Paul, Minn., where he was instrumental in developing that fabled high school program before moving to South Bend. A 1951 graduate of St. Thomas University, where he was a standout hockey and baseball player, Smith became an assistant coach at South St. Paul in 1953 and took over as head coach in 1958. He remained there until 1968, turning in a record of 201-69-11 before leaving to start the hockey program at Notre Dame.
He was named the Irish hockey coach by longtime Notre Dame athletics director Edward "Moose" Krause on Feb. 9, 1968—taking over a program that had been competing on the club level for the previous five seasons. His appointment coincided with the opening of the Athletic and Convocation Center that would be the home of Notre Dame hockey until the Compton Family Ice Arena opened in October 2011.
Smith had been an original member of the eclectic Algonquin Table that for years enjoyed lunch together virtually every weekday at the former University Club on campus before transferring that gathering to Legends.