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Notes: Smith understands his role

Red Wings' moms/mentors join their boys on this weekend's road trip

by Arthur J. Regner & Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji and @ArthurJRegner /

DETROIT -- A year ago, Red Wings forward Givani Smith was going through a difficult adjustment period.

Smith was a first-year pro with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit's AHL affiliate, and he was experiencing growing pains on and off the ice.

It wasn't until he spent the holidays with his family in Toronto last season that the 6-foot-2, 210-pound right wing found his bearings and turned his season around.

He put together a much better second half for the Griffins and impressed the Wings' brass with a solid playoff performance. So much so, he believed after spending the summer working out in Detroit that he had given himself a very good chance of being called up to the Red Wings at some point this season.

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On Oct. 25, 2019, Smith made his NHL debut against the Buffalo Sabres. He was held pointless in his 11:01 of ice time, but the rugged forward did pick up a minor penalty.

This season, Smith has been called up three times by the Wings, most recently on New Year's Eve, where he was in the lineup against the San Jose Sharks.

During the game, he became engaged a few times with Sharks superstar defenseman Brent Burns, which seemed to get Burns' attention.

"He (Burns) sees a big boy (Smith) coming to the net. His first instinct is to protect himself," Smith said. "I'd do the same. We're both competitive players."

It is Smith's physical presence and gritty style which his Red Wings teammates and Detroit's staff really appreciate.

"I think Smitty can be a pain in the (butt). That's good," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "He's a big, big man who's hard and isn't afraid of anyone and likes to jaw and likes to be involved. As long as he keeps his own game going the right way, I think it's a positive.

"I've told him I don't want him to say a word to the refs. He got himself in some trouble talking to the refs in the American League, so don't say a word up here. But he knows how to jaw and get underneath people's skin and I think if Brent Burns is chasing Smitty around, it's a good thing."

When he was called up on October, Smith was naturally excited, but tried to keep it in perspective that he was wearing the Red and White so soon.

"I've been telling myself that. I'm going to get called up. I already envisioned this, already imagined this and dreamed about it, that'll I'll be here," Smith said. "I was surprised but I wasn't surprised at the same time, if that makes sense to you. For me to be here, okay, awesome I'm here but this isn't my end goal.

"I want to eventually win a Stanley Cup. It's a step-by-step thing. You can't jump forward too much or you're going to lose yourself in the whole thing."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: Blashill talks today's practice & the mom's trip.Next stop: Dallas, TX.

As easy as it is to think you'll keep your emotions in check and try not to alter your game when you're called up, Smith understands he must play his game without trying to become a player he is not.

"I got to where I am by playing my style of game," Smith reasoned. "When I'm playing good, I'm playing the way Givani Smith plays. I'm playing the way I play. Why change anything? Just keep playing my style. If they like, they like me out here and I'll keep playing."

Blashill does like what he has seen from Smith, especially since he had such a slow start to his professional career.

"I thought he's done a good job, I talked about this the other day, of learning how to play within himself, I guess I'd say, and how to accentuate his skill set," Blashill said about Smith's ascension. "I think when he first came in from junior, like a lot of guys, I don't know that he was utilizing the skills that are going to separate him at this level. At the junior level, he might have been able to do more stuff.

"At this level, you have to figure out how can I be different than other people in a better way? I think he's done that. He's done that through really good coaching in the American League with Ben Simon, demanding that he does it right. He's done that through self-discovery himself and looking and saying, OK, I'm not going to be maybe a stick-handler through the neutral zone, I'm going to be a guy that's the best guy on the team in putting it behind people, forechecking hard, being unbelievably hard in front of the net, holding onto the puck, getting it low to high. And he seems to have done that.

"I think it's a combination of good coaching in the American League, I think it's a combination of self-discovery and self-reflection and then confidence would be the other thing. Confidence would be the other part."

Smith spent a few days in Toronto to celebrate the holidays. He was able to chow down on his favorite Jamaican cuisine and spend time with his brother, Gemel, who's currently playing with Syracuse in the AHL.

"It was awesome. Another good Christmas in the books," Smith said. "(Seeing) my family, my brother, my whole family, too -- my grandparents. It was really nice to go back home.

"We had curry goat, jerk chicken, ox tail, we had all the good stuff. It was nice talking to Gemel, too, because we don't get that very often, so it's nice when we go home."

As he enters 2020 with the Red Wings, Smith is in a good place. Whether he remains in Detroit or is sent back down to Grand Rapids, he knows that his perseverance in enduring last season's struggles has made him better as a player and a person.

"I feel really excited for myself. I've been working for this dream since I was ultimately probably 10 years old," Smith said. "My thought process every day was I want to play in the National Hockey League. I want to play in the NHL. It took so many steps to actually get there. Fast forward all these years until today, until I'm here.

"So now I just feel confident in my playing abilities, in my play out there. I just feel really good about myself."

Tweet from @Dwakiji: #RedWings Dylan Larkin and his mom, Denise, are ready for the Moms trip. For Mrs. Larkin, it is her second Moms trip.

TIME FOR MOMS: It's become an annual tradition for most teams to have one trip that the players' dads come along for the ride, to watch their sons play and to spend some quality time with them away from the rink. This year, the moms finally get a turn.

"My first year we had a moms trip and it was great," Blashill said. "We gave the dads a couple tries and the record just didn't add up so we're going back to the moms. I think it's awesome. I know certainly they deserve every bit as much as the dads to come and be a part of their sons' journey and see firsthand what their sons' life is like on the road and I think it's great. It's a different kind of atmosphere but a great one nonetheless. It should be lots of fun."

During Dylan Larkin's rookie season, it was also a moms trip so this is Denise Larkin's second time.

"She's texting you asking what time the bus is, the dads are already down in the hotel bar by the bus, so just grab them whenever," Larkin recalled. "The moms are a little more organized, I guess. It's just funny. They enjoy, they have a great time and so do we. We had a big win last game and hopefully we get a win tomorrow night for them and it's a great feeling going into Chicago."

Although the Larkins are fortunate to live in the same area where their son plays, this trip will give Dylan and his mom some time together.

"It's really cool, really special just to get to sit next to her on the plane," Larkin said. "We talk a lot but we don't spend a lot of time like that anymore, unfortunately, with busy schedules and we're traveling with the team. To have that time where we're just sitting there and we're going to have a nice talk and go to dinner tonight with a couple of the other guys and the other moms and get to know everyone, and just enjoy our company, it's very special."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: "They enjoy it, they have a great time, and so do we."Dylan Larkin as the #RedWings head to Dallas on the first leg of the mom's trip.

For Patrik Nemeth's mom, Nina, it is her first opportunity to go on one of these trips.

"We had dads trips in Dallas and Colorado," Nemeth said. "I've never had a mom's trip before. I think it's exciting for her to come over and see how we operate on a daily basis and see how the rink is like, the locker room. How we live. Just how it works. I think she knows but she hasn't watched it herself. I think it's just exciting to see how things are working on daily basis."

For Nina Nemeth and Christoffer Ehn's mom, Ulrica, they had the longest journey as they traveled from Sweden to be with their sons.

"She lives in Sweden, so it's a far flight for her," Nemeth said. "We try to get my dad or mom over once a year at least. She hasn't been on one of these trips, so it's fun. It's good that we do that. It's good for them just to see how things are going and bond a little bit, meet your teammates and see and meet new people. It's good for them."

When Andreas Athanasiou got injured, the Wings called up Smith from the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins.

For Smith, it enabled him to invite a very special woman to come on the moms trip, his aunt Maureen.

"It's amazing. I wish you guys could see the work that she's put in for me to get to where I'm at right now," Smith said. "All the work she's put in, all the hours she had to work extra just to keep me going. All the mornings she'd drive me to school. This is a way of me saying I appreciate everything that she's done for me and thank you so much. I'm happy she can come and the team can take care of her and she can have a nice couple of days here."

There is certainly a different vibe when the moms are on a trip as opposed to the dads but that might be for the best in the long run.

"The guys feel a little bit more like they have to help or look after their moms where I think they let the dads kind of just go," Blashill said. "Sometimes when they let the dads go, they might go a little too hard. So the moms seem to keep it in control way better. I like having the moms on the trip, to be honest with you. I'd have moms every year."

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