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Smith's play earned him League-wide respect

by John McGourty
Jason Smith long was one of the NHL's best-kept secrets. The disparity between the public's perception and hockey insiders' evaluation of the 15-season veteran's worth was as great as any player in modern times.

A quiet, defensive defenseman, Smith, 35, was seen by most fans as an effective player, durable and capable of playing a lot of minutes. To his teammates, coaches, management and opponents, Smith was seen as one of the toughest, most-respected men in the League: Tough to play against and the possessor of one of the highest pain thresholds in hockey. And that's saying something.

He retired Wednesday with the admiration of everyone he encountered in his long career.
"I have been fortunate to have played in the NHL for 16 years," Smith said. "I have played alongside many great teammates and for organizations that I was proud to have been a part of.

"I would like to thank all of my teammates, owners, coaches, managers and staff that I have had the privilege of working with through the years and would like to recognize the fans for their tremendous support."

The New Jersey Devils made Smith the No. 18 pick of the 1992 Entry Draft and he went on to play for the Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators. He was the captain in Edmonton and Philadelphia; his six-year tenure in Edmonton (2001-07), is the longest in Oilers' history.

"The game is going to miss a great leader," Ryan Smyth, who spent eight seasons with Smith in Edmonton, told "I was fortunate to have played with him, and I can't emphasize enough what a great team player he was -- he would do anything for his team and he cared so much for his team."

A review of Smith's injuries going back to 2001 shows games missed due to elbow, ankle, toe, calf, shoulder and back injuries. Smith injured his knee at a Devils practice in November 1994, his second NHL season. He missed the rest of that season and fell down the team's deep defensive depth chart.

New Jersey traded him in 1997, along with Steve Sullivan, to Toronto for Doug Gilmour, Dave Ellett and a draft pick. He was in his third season in Toronto when he was traded to Edmonton for two draft picks. Edmonton traded him in 2007, along with Joffrey Lupul, to Philadelphia for Joni Pitkanen and Geoff Sanderson.

Smith played one season in Philadelphia, and despite playing with two separated shoulders during the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he helped captain the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals.

"He was a very hands-on captain," said current Flyers captain Mike Richards. "He just went out there, played hard and played the game the way Flyer fans expect it should be played -- hard-nosed. He never complained even though he suffered a couple of injuries late in the year and he always participated in practice despite the fact he was hurting. He always kept things positive and there was never a time I didn't see him with a smile on his face."

The Ottawa native signed as a free agent with the Senators last season and played 63 games. He sprained his knee and missed the last 18 games of the season.

Smith said he had been able, in past seasons, to shake off the pain of prior seasons during offseason training, but not this summer. Senators General Manager Bryan Murray said Smith called him about 10 days ago to discuss retirement and they had another lengthy conversation Monday.

"Unfortunately for us, we got Jason at the end of his career and we were only able to have him play in Ottawa for one year," Murray said. "As I mentioned many times, he was a great leader, a very fierce competitor and a guy we wanted our young players to emulate as much as they could to give us the edge we need to be an every-night competitor.

"It's disappointing that we got Jason at this stage of his career. We wish him all the best. We were very fortunate to have had him play in Ottawa for a year and, hopefully, he'll be around at different points during this season to give us some insight as a former player."

"Unfortunately for us, we got Jason at the end of his career and we were only able to have him play in Ottawa for one year. As I mentioned many times, he was a great leader, a very fierce competitor and a guy we wanted our young players to emulate as much as they could to give us the edge we need to be an every-night competitor."
-- Senators GM Bryan Murray 

When the League began better tracking of blocked shots coming out of the work stoppage, Smith finished seventh, second and third in the League from 2005-06 through 2007-08. But he'd been doing it for years and always was regarded among the NHL's top shot-blockers. He also was among the League's leaders in hits.

At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Smith was one of the NHL's strongest men, capable of pushing the NHL's biggest forwards away from his net or forcing them wide on rushes. More often than not, opponents took a different route, away from Smith's territory. Flyers coach John Stevens employed a forechecking system that forced opponents to cross the blueline on Smith's side during his one season in Philadelphia.

Smith said he looks forward to spending more time "as a dad," this year. He and his wife, Wendy, have two daughters, Jordan and Britney. Smith said he might return to hockey as a coach or a scout because he still "has a great passion for hockey."

The Senators are still well-staffed at defense, with Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba, Anton Volchenkov, Chris Campoli, Brian Lee and Alexandre Picard. But there's no comfort zone there. Murray has used his first draft pick to select defensemen in three of the past five seasons, Lee in 2005, Erik Karlsson in 2008 and Jared Cowan in June. He has also signed a bumper crop of free-agent defensemen the past two seasons. Eric Gryba, a third-round pick in 2006, joins the Senators this season after winning the NCAA championship with Boston University this past spring.

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