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The Right "C"hoice

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Smith the ideal player to captain new-look Flyers

Bob Clarke, Keith Primeau, Dave Poulin and Ed Van Impe were all outstanding Flyers captains. It’s early, but signs point to Jason Smith being included among the best to wear the Flyers “C.”
When John Stevens and his coaching staff met during training camp to decide on a new captain, they had a full cupboard to choose from. Smith was the Edmonton Oilers’ captain. Kimmo Timonen wore the “C” in Nashville. Same for Danny Briere in Buffalo, who was a co-captain with Chris Drury. Flyers veterans Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble were considered “C”-worthy. Third-year center Mike Richards has been mentioned as a future Flyers captain.
Following the announcement that Smith was their choice, there was some surprise. Smith was among those saying “how ‘bout that?”

“I was surprised,” Smith said. “Going through the first training camp here and meeting the guys, I could see there were a lot of character guys. It’s a great challenge.”
Jason Smith's physical style has helped to endear him to Flyers fans in the early part of the season. (Getty Images)

Gagne, who is an alternate captain with Richards, has no problem with Smith’s selection. If Gagne had been chosen captain, he indicated that he was more ready for the responsibility than he was a few years ago.
“Overall, I think it’s great,” Gagne said. “When we got here for training camp, you could see right away what he brings, not only on the ice but off the ice. He was the perfect candidate for it.”
Some players are born with leadership qualities. Smith is one of those. He’s was a team captain in junior hockey.
Talking about the qualities that top team captains possess, Smith said, “You have to play hard. You have to come to the rink and work hard and be positive. Even when times aren’t going great, it’s important that you bring a positive attitude. I enjoy the leadership role.”
When Smith, 33, was named captain, Stevens said, “In Jason Smith, you have everything that you want in your captain. He has a lot of experience in this position. He is kind of a father figure that just naturally looks out for the group.”
General Manager Paul Holmgren, who swung the deal that brought Smith and winger Joffrey Lupul to Philadelphia, saluted Smith for playing “the right way.” The right way includes playing hard and focusing on every shift, blocking shots and fighting when he feels it is needed.

Last season, the 6-3, 215-pound Smith led the Oilers in blocked shots (228, second in the NHL), and hits (151). To many fans, sliding in front of a slap shot is a scary thought. Bruises and possible injury are likely results of this daring maneuver. To many hockey players, however, it’s second nature. Smith led the Oilers in blocked shots and hits the last five seasons.

You might think that being traded to the Flyers, who stumbled to the NHL’s worst record last season, was not the best news Smith received recently. He played seven-plus seasons in Edmonton, helping the Oilers reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2006. Once the news about the trade sank in, Smith was ready to wear the orange and black.

“I am just excited about a new chapter [in my career],” he said after the trade was announced. “These days, the way the league works, there is a lot more player movement than there use to be. I am just happy to be a Flyer now.”

During training camp, Smith said the Flyers’ miserable 2006-07 season was discussed. “It was one to forget,” he said. “We want to look forward to the future. It’s been a real positive attitude from day one. Sometimes you go through a rough area. Guys who were on the roster here last year want to do a lot better.

“The league is so competitive that when things get going in the wrong direction, they can snowball and it can get ugly really quick. It’s important that our team this year keeps things going upstream, as opposed to downstream.”

Smith has been a big part of the Flyers impressive start. Backed by Martin Biron’s superb goaltending, the Flyers are defending, moving the puck quickly out of their zone and not caving in pressure situations. A perfect example of their resilience was in the first period of a victory over the New Jersey Devils at the Wachovia Center. The Flyers hung an 0-for-4 on the Devils power play. The Flyers’ attack then gathered momentum on the way to a decisive 4-0 win.
While Smith has only played a few games with Biron, the veteran defenseman likes what he’s seen.

“He’s vocal, and that’s a big positive,” Smith said. “Communication goes a long way on the ice. It makes it that much easier to play. He’s very excited about our team and the challenge ahead.”

With several new players on the team, Holmgren and Stevens decided a bonding session would be helpful. On their way to a game in Vancouver, the Flyers stayed several days in Whistler, British Columbia. They participated in team-building exercises designed to enhance team spirit and help the players trust each other.

“It was really neat,” Smith said. “It was a couple days of hanging out and learning about each other. The down time, away from the activities, was nice, too, because training camp is a busy time. It was a good opportunity for the guys to get to know each other.”

Smith hopes to play at a high level for several more NHL seasons. Beginning his 14th season in the league, the first-round draft choice of the Devils in 1992 is at the point in his career where he can mentor younger players.

“It’s always important to help the young guys,” he said. “When I came to the Devils, there was Kenny Daneyko, Scott Stevens and Bruce Driver. They were good guys to watch and learn from. It’s such a big lifestyle change, whether it’s going from college or junior (hockey) to playing in this league. There is a learning curve.”
After playing 164 games for the Devils, Smith was traded to Toronto in February, 1997. The first trade for any pro athlete usually is a jolt.
“(We) just had our first baby,” Smith recalled. “It was a pretty stressful time for myself and my wife (Wendy). Moving on was weird. You didn’t know what to expect. Having gone through it and gotten a little older and more experienced, you can stress yourself out way too much over certain things. It’s better to stay low-key and not worry about things you can’t control.”
As the seasons went by in Edmonton, Smith says he hadn’t thought about finishing his career in the central Alberta city. “After I was traded, I thought I was pretty lucky to have played in Edmonton as long as I did,” he said. “I have great friends there. But it’s going to be a great opportunity for me here.”

The way Smith and the Flyers have started the season, Flyers fans are hoping that Smith has a long, enjoyable stay in Philadelphia.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.

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