Photo by Mitch Highman, MJoy Photography
February 15, 2016: Fargo Force forward Denis Smirnov is skating in his 142nd career USHL game. The Moscow, RUS native is a three-year veteran with 120 points to his name, a USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game invitation, USHL All-Rookie Team honor and a Clark Cup Championship. One last accomplishment eludes the winger, as he sits one point shy of becoming only the fifth USHL player to score three 40-point seasons.
Down 1-0 halfway through the second period, Smirnov and the Force are looking for a boost to keep their playoff hopes alive. The winger collects his own rebound on the power play and looks to pass the puck from the point. He goes left, where Hank Crone fakes a shot to put the puck onto the tape of Blake Lizotte. The rest, as they say, is history.
“It’s a huge honor to be one of those five players, I wouldn’t have done it without my teammates or coaches from the past three years,” said Smirnov. “It feels good now but will feel better to make playoffs. It’s not about personal achievements but the team.”
With Smirnov’s power play assist, the Fargo Force winger joined the likes of Winnipeg Jets prospect Kyle Connor (Youngstown Phantoms), Shane Sooth (Dubuque Fighting Saints), Mike Seidel (Cedar Rapids RoughRiders) and John Kemp (Indiana Ice).
Since then, Smirnov has added an assist to tie a career-high 41 points and is now tied for 10th in the USHL scoring race. Fargo heads into the weekend three points back of a playoff spot, and Smirnov has been a large part of the team’s recent success. Head coach Cary Eades noted that Smirnov’s game goes well beyond scoring.
“Denis is much more to us and to any hockey team that he has played for than just points,” said Eades. “He’s a great penalty killer and provides a physical presence for a medium-sized player. He’s one of our leaders and he’s been successful in the playoffs. He also knows about getting there and advancing each round.”
That playoff experience may become more valuable to Eades and the Force in the remaining two months of the season.
“There’s a real value in the NHL to get players with Stanley Cup experience and to have a Clark Cup champion on the team speaks volumes,” added Eades, a Clark Cup champion himself. “Hopefully he can bring those past experiences to give encouragement to the guys in the locker room.”
The relationship between player and coach has helped the smaller winger thrive in his third season as he looks to continue climbing up the scoring race. Smirnov noted that at times it has been difficult to play for three different coaches in three years, but was excited to play for Eades at the beginning of the season.
“Cary coached us how to play hard and make plays,” said Smirnov. “He doesn’t tell us where to go and call out certain plays, but makes us decide what plays to make and trusts us to make those decisions.”
The second year NHL Draft eligible forward is expected to join the Penn State University hockey team next season with former Wilkes-Barre Scranton Knights (AYHL) teammate and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Nikita Pavlychev (Des Moines Buccaneers), in addition to potentially nine other USHL players.
Smirnov looked back fondly at his memories and the recent scoring accomplishments, but said he would definitely like to win another championship. As for the legacy he will leave in the USHL, Smirnov wants other smaller players to play the game fearlessly just like he has.
“I don’t look at size on the ice, we’re all the same,” said Smirnov. “You have to work hard and make sure everything is right and you’ll succeed. Make sure you listen to your coach, work hard every day and just enjoy the time in the USHL. It’s a fun league and just love the game. You’ll do good.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.