Some Leaf fans will remember D.J. Smith when he was an added defenceman as part of a major trade that saw Wendel Clark
begin in his second tenure in Toronto in 1996.
If you don’t remember that, Smith won’t take it personally.
By his own admission, he was fortunate to have a short time as a player in the NHL, a small portion of that with the Maple Leafs and six seasons with their AHL affiliate, the St. John’s Maple Leafs.
“I used the word lucky really, to have a chance to be a part of the Maple Leafs as a player in that trade and play a few games for the team was the highlight of my career and now to have a second chance as a coach, it’s unbelievable,” said Smith.
The Windsor, Ont., native is coming off an incredible run with the Oshawa Generals, where he led them to their first Memorial Cup in 25 years. He’s found his success as a coach, something that came with understanding the agony of trying to find his role as a player.
“I’m the same as when I was a player. I wasn’t a flashy guy, I worked hard for everything. It’s the same in coaching,” said Smith. “I started out as an assistant just helping out in junior, second assistant to finally being a head coach to finally getting this opportunity. So I spent 12 years in the Ontario Hockey League to get here. I’ve learned a lot of things along the way but I have a lot more to learn if I want to be an NHL Head Coach one day.”
When the Maple Leafs brought in Sheldon Keefe to coach the Marlies, a lot of the draw came to being given the time necessary to develop as a coach. With Smith, the opportunity is about the same. He will be with the Leafs on a day-to-day basis. But, he’s in it to learn
There were no shortage of suitors for Smith’s services, given what he accomplished. But both Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas pursued Smith shortly after the Generals victory parade in Oshawa. A conversation then took place during Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence camp to which Smith was a participant. After that, a conversation between Smith and Mike Babcock sealed the deal.
“The big draw for me with Mike is that he not only develops players, he develops coaches. And I’m looking to get better. I need to push myself and I think it’s the perfect time to move on after winning the Memorial Cup and a new chapter and a new challenge in my life.”
Being from Windsor, Smith grew up a Red Wings fan. He was around a lot of hockey from both Detroit and Toronto. But Babcock had a large influence in shaping Smith coaching style, long before he agreed to join the organization again.
“I’ve watched the Red Wings and just the way they play and certainly they play different than a lot of other teams. So as a coach I was constantly taking video from them or taking things that they did and tried to implement them into my own systems.”
Smith is yet another phase in development.