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Persistence pays off for Smith

by Laurence Heinen / Calgary Flames

Derek Smith watches Rangers forward Brian Boyle

Derek Smith has taken a roundabout route to becoming an everyday player in the National Hockey League with the Calgary Flames.

After spending four years in the Ottawa Senators’ organization, Smith decided to sign with the Calgary Flames as a free agent on July 12 and he hasn’t looked back.

“It’s nice to get a fresh start somewhere else,” said the 27-year-old native of Belleville, Ont. “It’s been a lot of fun. You just try to get better every day and fit in as much as you can and try to leave an impression with the guys, with the management.”

Smith cracked the Flames’ lineup out of training camp and the 6-foot-1, 197-pound defenceman has fit in nicely on the Calgary blue-line.

“He’s worked hard to get to where he’s at today and he’s continued to work hard to stay on that path,” said Calgary coach Brent Sutter. “He’s been a really good player for us.”

After playing 123 games over four seasons between 2000 and 2004 for the Wellington Dukes of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League, Smith went on to play three more seasons for the Lake Superior State Lakers. Although he was undrafted, Smith signed as a free agent with the Senators in April of 2007 and decided to leave college a year early to pursue his dreams of playing in the NHL. Early in his first season with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League, Smith received a wake-up call that has stuck with him to this day. Smith was sent to the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL, but after recording an assist in his lone game he was summoned back up to play with Binghamton once again.

“It was definitely an eye opener, that’s for sure,” said Smith, who took it as a sign to become a better two-way defenceman. “It was just like, ‘I better start concentrating’.” For four seasons, Smith served as a steady blue-liner for the Binghamton Senators. He played two games with Ottawa in the 2009-10 season and nine more with the NHL Sens last year. He even recorded his first NHL point when he drew an assist on a goal by Nick Foligno in a game against the Atlanta Thrashers.

Last season with Binghamton, Smith scored 10 goals and added 44 assists in 71 regular-season games and then added a goal and an assist in six playoff contests as the Senators marched all the way towards a Calder Cup championship. The B-Sens overcame a 2-1 deficit to beat the Houston Aeros in six games in the AHL finals.

“It was a great experience,” said Smith, who notched his goal in a 3-0 win Aeros in Game 4 of the finals. “Anytime you can win a championship, it’s something you’ll remember forever. The playoffs, it’s a long journey and just to learn how to win and do the things that you need to do to succeed, it obviously makes you a better player and you learn a lot from it.”

Sutter agreed that Smith’s championship experience has helped to make him a better player. “For him to go through that and win, that’s quite an accomplishment,” Sutter said. “That’s an added bonus to our room because he understands how important the team has to be in synch throughout the whole year, just not for two weeks or three weeks. Growing with the guys as a group, you understand all the ups and downs that teams go through.”

While he took a less traditional route to the NHL than other players, Smith has learned something at every step along the way that has helped him become a better player.

“Every day I’m more comfortable and more confident,” he said. “That’s a big thing in this league, you’ve got to play with confidence and the more confidence you have the better you’re going to play. I feel like every game I’m getting better.”

Through his first 24 games with the Flames, Smith counted his first two NHL goals to go with four assists.

“Right from the start of the year, he’s played well,” said fellow defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who has been impressed with how adept Smith is at joining the rush. “That’s part of his game. He’s a good skater, he moves the puck and he can get up there for sure. He has those instincts. He’s scored some goals that were pretty timely.”

Forward Alex Tanguay gave credit to Smith for being persistent and not giving up on his dreams of playing in the NHL. “It goes to show the type of person he is and how hard he’s worked to work his way up here,” Tanguay said. “Mentally it’s such a grind on a daily basis to prepare yourself and to do the things that will get you the best chance at being successful.”

While he enjoyed his years in the Ottawa Senators’ organization, Smith is definitely happy with his decision to head west to join the Flames.

“Coming here now and getting an opportunity from this organization has been awesome and that’s really all you can ask for,” he said. “It’s just a chance to prove yourself.”

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