A basement bed in Iowa. A locker room in Chicago. A small college in Wisconsin. When life means moving around, constants are hard to come by.
Some might struggle without similarity. Others, like Matt Smith, do not. That name is one of many in Chicago, but don’t underestimate the power it has.
It won’t tell you about his mother, an immigrant from Macedonia and a widow that fell in love with his father at a Jewel-Osco on the corner of Clark and Division. She was a cashier. He stocked shelves.
“I was given opportunities [my mom] wasn’t given,” Smith said. “I think I’ve always had that mission-driven service ethic from her in some way.”
His name won’t tell you Smith was a class president at Lane Tech. Or that he was also a class president at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Or that he played hockey everywhere he went.
Those attributes might be why Smith was in a dour locker room on March 6 in the suburbs north of Chicago. He was in a hockey rink so close to O’Hare he could’ve walked onto a plane and left the scene as fast as he could, as far as he could. Instead, he was trying to keep 20 high school kids from crying.
It was the last time Smith would coach some of those kids, the two sides working together to orchestrate the rise of St. Ignatius in the Chicago Catholic Hockey League. They had fallen just short, the players that were graduating and the man that had just lost his day job.
Smith’s life changes rapidly, but the constant remains the same. The sport that gave him avenues for success and stayed with him everywhere he went is the same one that pushed him to a wall of emotions inside that locker room.
Al Gore was going to be the President of the United States. At least, that was the goal.
Smith plugged away for a few weeks in Iowa during 1999, helping grow support for Gore before the caucuses for the election in 2000, crashing in a basement when he found time for sleep. His waking hours were spent pounding the pavement for Gore’s campaign.
Before any of that, though, Smith found himself at a crossroads that many recent college graduates come across. He needed a job.
“And then that led to an interesting journey,” Smith said. “It was a very unconventional route.”
The biggest thing working in his favor was his positive, outgoing personality.
He served as a substitute teacher in Chicago after working a rare connection. The assistant principal at his old elementary school had moved into a principal role at another school. He dropped off his resume and had a job soon after.
He moved on to work with James Houlihan in the Cook Country assessors’ office, writing speeches and working on policy papers.
He had acquired a taste for positive political change.
Smith moved to Dubuque, Iowa to work on Gore’s presidential campaign. He lived in that basement, under the house of two retired teachers while spending three months as a field organizer.
The movement had began. Not just for Gore, but for Smith’s life.
“I went to Columbus, Ohio for six weeks, spent a week in Nashville, and it all culminated with going to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles,” Smith said. “I lived with a friend of a friend at his home in Pasadena.”
After the Gore campaign, Smith returned home. He spent time working with public housing in Chicago, but the constant remained the same. Hockey had his heart.
“I was coaching hockey while I worked with Houlihan, coached hockey while I worked with the Chicago Housing Authority,” Smith said. “Then I was able to flip over to Chicago Public Schools in sports administration and leverage that passion for youth sports and align it to the service ethic.”
That was his day job, something he stuck with. He raved about working with kids who, like Smith, didn’t come from a wealthy background or had equal opportunities to play sports.
He ran an annual fundraising event, raising money to send low-income youth to sports camps around the Midwest. He wanted to give, and the kids he worked with were happy to get.
It was a job he loved until he lost it.
St. Ignatius was a mess on the ice, becoming the joke of the CCHL after joining in 2007. The Wolfpack had managed 53 league wins in eight seasons, or just under seven wins a year on a conference slate of 22 total games.
Then, Smith arrived.
He changed the entire culture of the program when he arrived in 2016, guiding the team to a record 13 wins in his first season while winning a CCHL playoff game for the first time ever.
Season two was another year of firsts. There was the regular season title, a new addition for the Wolfpack. They won more than just one playoff game that season, taking multiple playoff rounds on their way to the Kennedy Cup, the league’s championship series. There, the team added its first heartbreak, losing in the final game of the best-of-three series to St. Viator.
After this past season, Smith’s third and the team’s second regular season title, St. Ignatius has 48 league wins in three years.
“The program has changed a lot. [The last] coach wasn’t really connected with the team,” said leading scorer Patrick Doyle. “We never really saw him outside of practice, no concern for what’s going on in your life.”
Smith is much different. He organized team dinners, gatherings outside of practices and even study groups.
He also built a staff capable of helping with that culture. That includes assistant coach Nick Ustaski, a law student living in the city and a former hockey player at the University of Delaware.
“Dedication, commitment, excitement… he’s got a plan ready to go,” Ustaski said. “I think [the team before Smith] was just complacent being where they were. They were just going to the rink and doing the same drills… guys were tired of it.”
The coaches bicker like children some days and smile and laugh like long friends the other days. That bickering is healthy, Ustaski says, since it helps the coaches build off of one another.
Smith brought in extra skills coaches. His team watches film. He even had a sports psychiatrist work with his players.
“A lot of the lessons he’s taught us about hockey are applicable to life in general,” said Christian Klein, one of 14 seniors that were with Wolfpack this season. “A lot of stuff about accountability [and] doing things the right way.”
It was that culture that built the team into the powerhouse it was this season. It helped them to that second straight regular season title, and it hurt when they fell in the Kennedy Cup Finals to St. Viator again.
Near the end of the season, Smith was told he was part of a series of layoffs at his job. After a life on the move, he never wanted to leave.
He never told the team. They couldn’t tell.
His energy didn’t waver as they charged into another battle with Viator in the state quarterfinals, one last shot to extend their season, one positive development for the coach that built their program at a time he needed it the most.
They lost 5-0.
Smith was in that locker room on March 6, no day job, no more hockey. Another season cut short. His seniors cried, many of them realizing it was their last game together, even more knowing it was their last game in organized hockey. The sadness was palpable.
Yet there was Smith, walking out of the locker room nearly 30 minutes after the game had ended, talking to players and families in the lobby, shaking hands and keeping up the positivity.
He still doesn’t know his next move.
“I wish I had an answer,” Smith said. “Maybe that’s what’s holding me back.”
He loves Chicago and hopes to stick around. The athletic director role for St. Ignatius opened up, but his application was not accepted. It might be time to change lives again.
His phone keeps him grounded, with one text. One of Smith’s co-captains had written to him, a long paragraph filled with gratitude.
Smith might move on, but hockey won’t leave his life anytime soon. At this point, it’s part of his name.