Dawson Smith has a mystique that precedes him. When he laces up his skates before practice at Centennial Arena, it’s not uncommon for pint-sized admirers to appear in the locker room and ask,
‘What’s it like, Dawson, to play in the big game?”
The inquiry is not nearly as easy to answer as it might seem to be. These days, the seasoned 12-year-old from Billings, Mont. — now headed toward the ripe old age of 13 — feels compelled to reply, albeit shyly, “Which big game do you mean?”
Earlier this year, Smith and his Montana Thunderblades teammates came within one victory of making it to the finals of the USA Hockey National Tier II (1A) 12 & Under National Tournament in Reston, Va.
That alone would be a memorable accomplishment for a group of 17 kids drawn from the ranks of Peewee teams across a huge, hockey-sparse state.
But young Mr. Smith has an even bigger experience on his resume. It was a little more
“He's the type of competitor that you want to have on your team. He's willing to contribute however he can to help his team win.”
than one year ago that Smith and members of the Billings Big Sky Little League baseball team
emerged as true Cinderellas of the diamond. Playing in South Williamsport, Pa., they were one game shy from reaching the title game in the Little League World Series.
A notable consolation prize is that these boys from the Magic City were among only a few teams all season to boast a victory over the eventual global champions from Huntington Beach, Calif.
Yes, it’s a shop-worn expression that hockey players tend to make good overall athletes, and indeed, the dividends of cross training are obvious, but Smith adds fresh meaning to both, says Thunderblades’ head coach Mike Hass, a veteran behind the bench whose own experience extends to the ranks of Junior hockey.
What makes Smith’s story all the more compelling, Hass says, is that even though the boy’s all-star teams battled their way into the highest echelons of youth sports in America, Smith was neither a standout nor showboat on either squad.
He is, instead, a reliable workhorse; a humble, mostly soft spoken contributor; a kid that Hass describes as a “coach’s player.”
“He’s the type of competitor that you want to have on your team,” Hass says. “He’s willing to contribute however he can to help his team win.”
Robbie Smith, Dawson’s dad, says his son first picked up a baseball glove at around age 2 and learned to skate a year later. Dawson attended his first hockey game, a home contest involving the Junior A Billings Bulls, when he was just 6 weeks old.
“He got interested in hockey watching from the stands. It wasn’t long afterward that we got him enrolled in a learn-to-skate program,” Robbie says.
Dawson, who’ll be a seventh grader in the fall, throws with his left arm but shoots pucks as a righty. On the diamond, he’s slotted as a pitcher and utility infielder. He was one of only a couple of 11-year-olds to make the 2011 Little League team.
With the Thunderblades, he prefers playing wing. Hass describes him as a player who digs in the corners, hustles on the backcheck and gets as much satisfaction from being a playmaker as a goal scorer.
The Thunderblades were 17-2-3 over the regular season, winning tournaments in Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs. During the national tournament, Hass notes that Smith never showed jitters as the Thunderblades suited up against the highly-touted Omaha Junior Lancers in the opening game.
“Both my baseball coach and my hockey coach said the important thing is just to go out there and have fun. If you’re having fun you’re more likely to win,” Dawson says, noting that after playing before a packed stadium crowd in South Williamsport he knows how to remain calm.
Despite being considered major underdogs, Hass says it was Smith’s calming demeanor in the locker room that helped the Thunderblades shake their nervousness. In fact, they went on to upset the Lancers, 3-2, in a shootout.
The Thunderblades went 3-1 in pool play and then lost to the Nashville Junior Predators (the eventual tournament champs), 7-3, in the semifinals.
“For a Montana team to do that well is rare,” Hass says. “The numbers of kids we are able to draw upon is incredibly small compared to the teams we’re playing. I’m proud of them.”
Similarly, Billings was just happy to get to the regional baseball tournament in San Bernardino, Calif. Their goal, Dawson says, was to simply win enough games to play in a game broadcast live on cable television. But they accomplished far more, eventually beating Oregon, 7-1, to punch their ticket to South Williamsport, the first team from Montana ever to do so.
At the big show in Pennsylvania, Billings beat South Dakota, 6-4, and Louisiana, 3-1. Then, in a quarterfinal game at the 10-day tournament, Billings knocked off heavily favored Huntington Beach, 1-0. Notably, that contest, aired on ESPN, attracted four million viewers and was the highest rated TV audience for a youth baseball game ever in the California market.
“Once you get out there and play the first game, you don’t really notice the cameras,” Dawson shrugs.
Billings’ dream run, however, came to an end when Huntington Beach extracted a measure of revenge in a semifinal rematch televised on ABC. The Californians went on to beat Japan, 2-1, to win the World Series crown.
“On the ice, it's five kids against five kids. coach said
Although Smith’s hockey team was dealt a similar fate, the Thunderblade’s showing reinforced a lesson that Smith learned at the ballpark: When working together as a team, anything is possible. “
On the ice, it’s five kids against five kids,” Dawson says. “Coach said we just need to skate with them one shift at a time.”
Playing hockey on a select team in Montana means covering thousands of miles by car and an equal number flying to tournaments in the West every winter. Long weekends lead to absences from the classroom, but Smith knows what his priorities are.
“I carry my school books in a backpack,” he says. “My favorite subject is solving problems in math.”
Here’s a statistic he couldn’t answer: What are the odds of another boy having accomplished what he did in two different sports?
While it may be hard to say how many kids have shared Smith’s double feat within the same calendar year, it’s safe to say that he joins an exclusive club of youth hockey players who also played in the Little League World Series, including Chris Drury (1989) and Krissy Wendell (1994).
“My wife and I encourage our kids to dream big, but if you would have asked me 10 years ago if I ever thought two of Dawson’s sports teams would compete on that level, I’d have never believed you,” Robbie Smith says. “The most rewarding things are the friendships he’s made along the way.”
If Dawson had to choose just one, he doesn’t know which sport he’d pick.
“It depends on the season,” he says. “When it starts getting cold, I love hockey, but when the snow melts I’m ready for baseball.
“One thing I do know is that being an underdog is definitely an advantage. Us coming from Montana, other teams don’t take us very seriously.”
That may be changing, as Dawson Smith continues to put the Big Sky state on the national sporting map.
Todd Wilkinson is a renowned writer based out of Bozeman, Mont.