CHICAGO – Ben Smith never had been to Hawaii.
But the NHL’s Olympic break had arrived, and Smith was eager to enjoy some rest and relaxation during his time away from the game. So the Blackhawks’ 25-year-old forward hopped a flight to the island of Oahu to forget about hockey for a while.
Everything was perfect.
The sunsets. The beach. The hockey rink.
Wait. Did someone say hockey rink?
“We rented a car and drove around the island a bit,” said Smith, who has scored seven goals with 10 assists in his first full season with the Hawks. “We got lost, and we ended up at a hockey rink, actually. It was pretty funny.”
Not ha-ha funny. More like hit-the-gas-and-get-us-away-from-here funny.
“We got out of there,” Smith said with a smile. “We were trying to get on the highway. We were trying to go up to see some more of the island.”
Eventually, Smith found his bearings and resumed his Hawaiian vacation. He hiked the Diamond Head trail, enjoyed fine meals, and let his muscles recover after 60 tough games.
On Sunday, Smith joined 11 other well-rested Hawks teammates who did not take part in the Sochi Olympics. The fast-paced practice was sloppy at first, with more than a dozen consecutive shooters failing to score against Corey Crawford in rush drills, but eventually the session featured a few style points as forwards and defensemen found their rhythm.
In the next few days, the group will be joined by the Hawks’ 10 Olympians, including gold medal winners Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp. A few Olympians could return to practice early this week, while those who played in Sunday’s gold medal game will receive a few days of rest before returning Thursday to play the New York Rangers.
Two days later, on Saturday, the Hawks will host the Pittsburgh Penguins in an outdoor game at Soldier Field as part of the NHL’s stadium series.
“It’s an interesting week for us,” said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, who did not miss an Olympic hockey game on TV. “We’ll see how they feel, and gauge it from there.”
It’s fair to assume that at least a few of the Hawks’ Olympians might be exhausted when they return. Seven Hawks players advanced to the medal round, including Canada’s winning trio and Sweden’s runner-up trio of Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Marcus Kruger. Patrick Kane played the same number of games, but fell short of a medal with Team USA.
The Olympic group’s frantic February makes it all the more important for the Hawks’ non-Olympians to produce in the first few games after the break.
“We’ll try to give those guys as much support as we can,” forward Kris Versteeg said. “They’re all the guys that make the engine turn, so they’re big parts. They might come over here and think they’re not going to play much, but they’re all going back into the fire because that’s what they do.”
The same goes for the Hawks’ well-rested contingent.
While Smith savored his first trip to Hawaii, teammate Brandon Bollig enjoyed 6 days and 5 nights in Cancun, Mexico. Bollig avoided any accidental sightings of hockey rinks – “not a single one, and I’m glad for that” – and returned to practice with renewed energy.
“We had an amazing time down there,” said Bollig, still sporting a bright red suntan. “We got our rest and our fun out of the way, and now we’re ready to get back to work.”