Conrad Smith started with the Minnesota Strikers soccer team. He then worked for the North Stars, the Twins, the Timberwolves. Most recently, he was chief operating officer of the Lynx.

He'd joke that the Vikings were the state's "only professional sports franchise he hadn't tackled," said Chris Wright, president of the Timberwolves and Lynx.

With the business acumen of a professional and the passion of a fan, Smith helped drive the sales, sponsorships and operations behind Minnesota sports teams for decades, earning two championship rings along the way.

Smith, of Eagan, died Jan. 16 after battling brain cancer for more than two years. He was 56.

He grew up in Massachusetts, studying communications and playing soccer at Emerson College in Boston, with plans to be a sports broadcaster. A slight stutter shifted his plans to the business behind sports, said his wife, Carla.

He moved to Minnesota in 1984 while working for the Strikers, which relocated from Fort Lauderdale.

Smith met his future wife while traveling back from a match in Vancouver, British Columbia. Carla, a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, was off duty, returning from Seattle. Seated next to each other, they quickly realized that they both lived in the Twin Cities, in Burnsville, in an apartment complex on Cliff Road.

"We lived in the same apartment building," Carla said, laughing. "Isn't that weird?"

Each was new to the area, so once they started dating, "we did everything together," she said. They complemented each other, partly because he was "outgoing and friendly and fun," while she's a little shy.

"What people remember about him is that he treated everyone the same," Carla said. "Even when he was an executive, he still talked with the ushers."

Wright recruited Smith to the Timberwolves in 1994 and, in 2008, made him chief operating officer of the Lynx.

The Lynx at that point were at a stage similar to the Strikers when Wright and Smith worked for that franchise, Wright said. Soccer was "viewed as a second-tier sport," he said. "Yet we had phenomenal success on the business side." That's partly because the staff, Smith included, was "a scrappy bunch."

"When you've got an emerging brand like the Lynx, you need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get scrappy, driving the fan base, the corporate base, the brand," Wright said. "Conrad turned things around."

Timberwolves and Lynx owner Glen Taylor said in a statement that "it was Conrad's leadership and passion that helped make the Lynx franchise a business success."

When he wasn't handling the ticket sales, sponsorships and marketing behind sports, he was watching them. He "loved sports," Carla said. "That was his life." He gathered with friends for games, coached his kids' teams and played soccer in an adult league.

"He was a terrible golfer, but he thought he was a great golfer," Wright said. "We had lots of fun on and around the golf course."

In June 2010, Smith's brain cancer was diagnosed. Somehow, he stayed "upbeat and positive," Carla said. Then again, he was a positive guy. When his three children were young, he'd leave inspirational quotes on their pillows.

Smith was "absolutely beaming" when the Lynx won their national championship in 2011, Carla said.

"I can't think of a better way that Conrad could ultimately go out," Wright said. "He was a champion."

In addition to his wife, Smith's survivors include his three children, Tara, Brenton and Christine Smith. Local services have been held.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna