It’s not too often that a recreation league goaltender in Nashville can say that he’s practiced with a team in the National Hockey league, let alone two NHL teams. Dustin Smith can now stake that claim as he’s now been a part of practice for the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers. As a co-finalist to the Florida Panthers “Goal of a Lifetime” competition earlier this week, the former Middle Tennessee State University goaltender got to experience something not many people can in their lives. It wouldn’t have been possible if not for what happened on March 3rd between the Panthers and the Maple Leafs.
During that game, Both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya went down with injuries, prompting the team to sign goaltending coach Robb Tallas for the game as a back because Luongo was able to return. Social media exploded over the event and the Panthers took it upon themselves to host a back up goaltender competition. It was thanks to the encouragement of those around him that prompted Smith to enter the competition.
“I have a lot of family, friends and guys I play hockey with that brought it up to me,” said Smith. “They said I should go down and try out. It’s really something I couldn’t pass up. I felt like I should at least try it, so I hopped on a plane and made it down there for the tryout. Obviously, things went pretty well for me.”
Out of over 1,500 applications received, 65 were invited to participate in the tryout. Smith was the only participant invited hailing from Tennessee. Goaltenders from all different backgrounds were present, but Smith didn’t let his nerves get to him.
“I actually didn’t really feel any pressure at all,” said Smith. “The whole thing for me was just to go down there and have a good time and feel it out. I just wanted to focus on having fun during the tryout.”
Not only did Smith get to show what he was made of to the Florida Panthers staff, but he also got to mix it up with some big names known to Nashville and Florida. Tomas Vokoun, who played for both the Predators and the Panthers, assisted at the tryout and gave Smith plenty of encouragement throughout the process.
“I actually got to pull Tomas Vokoun to the side and talk to him about Nashville a little bit,” said Smith. “He came over a couple of times and told me I was doing well. It was nice to be able to talk to a guy like that, especially coming down from Nashville.”
For someone that loves the sport whose highest level of play (so far) is Division III non-varstiy college hockey, it gave Smith a huge sense of accomplishment. He, along with Bill Ruggiero, were the top two goaltenders out of all the submissions.
“It was kind of a shocking experience at first to be selected as a finalist,” said Smith. “It was definitely a proud moment for myself, friends and family, everyone. It’s definitely a big deal for me.”
Part of the experience on winning the competition was facing Panthers alumni during a shootout competition. On March 17th, during intermission of the Panthers and Montreal Canadiens game, both winners took shootout attempts from Radek Dvorak and Marco Sturm.
“I was a lot more nervous waiting to even hit the ice,” said Smith. “We had to stand in the tunnel and wait for the referees to get off the ice. That was the most nerve-wracking part. Once I got out there, I just tried to stay focused and not let the crowd get to me too much. We went two rounds. I let in one during the first round and Bill let in one during the second round, so it ended up being a tie.”
Because the shootout lead to a tie (go figure), Smith and Ruggiero were then invited to practice with Florida the next day.
“It was a great experience,” said Smith. “I’ve had experience practicing with the Preds, so going down to be with the Florida Panthers was a similar situation, but it was a great group of guys. It’s been a while since I’ve played on that level, so getting a chance to go out there with guys of that caliber was a great feeling.”
Not only did Smith get to practice with the Panthers, but he was also able to chat up gold medal winner Roberto Luongo.
“We just kind of had casual conversation,” said Smith while still in awe. “I know JP Dumont through playing around here for a while, and I guess JP gave him a heads up that I was coming down. He came over and we talked about that for a second. It was just casual conversation…with Roberto Luongo.”
Smith returned home Wednesday afternoon and it’s back to real life for him. While he enjoyed his experience, Smith is training for another big even next month.
“For me, right now, I’m signed up for the Music City Marathon in April,” Smith said. “So, I’m training for that. I’m still on the ice playing rec league, but if something comes of this, I’m totally open to it. I just have to keep my ears open and hope for the best.”
What does the future hold for the 27-year old from Nashville? Hopefully more hockey. Who knows, maybe the Panthers will need to call upon their winner in the near future.
Photos courtesy: Florida Panthers