After three-and-a-half years in Owen Sound, Gemel Smith has been knighted — and he’s hoping to play a key role leading the London Knights charge to its third Memorial Cup berth. Not only has he joined a team with a wealth of playoff experience, but he’s bringing some finals’ knowledge himself as he was part of the Attack’s OHL champion squad in 2010-11.
“It’s definitely a great feeling getting another crack at it and I know that I can bring some scoring to the team,” he said. “I know what it takes, I know what types of goals you need to score.”
And getting back to hockey’s promised land is especially meaningful for Smith, who has a tattoo that reads, “Only God Can Judge Me” to help him remember that the road has not always been so smooth.
“It’s the only tattoo I have and I just want to show that where I come from is a really tough town and not many people make it from there,” Smith explained. “It’s just to have a thing that says, ‘Just keep going. Try not mess things up.’ And to know that nothing can stop me.”
Smith grew up in Etobicoke, eventually moving to Brampton — both are part of the Greater Toronto Area (the fourth-largest metropolitan area in North America). And while both cities have some marquee neighbourhoods, there are also some places that don’t offer quite as positive of an environment.
“I grew up in the really, really bad part of town where there were a lot of bad things going on, so something like this tattoo gives me a chance to remember where I’m from and to remember how hard I worked,” he added.
Smith credits some positive influences in his life for getting him to where he is now.
“Definitely my coaches in my minor hockey career and my dad,” he said. “[They] just helped me to stay away from the bad crowd and make the right decisions.”
The 5’11”, 190-pound left winger also said his status as an athlete helped ensure that some of the rougher elements spent more time helping him succeed than trying to drag him down.
“When I told a lot of them that I played hockey, they really couldn’t believe it because I was a pretty good basketball player too,” he explained. “They see that someone from where they live is making it, or is on his way, they’ve really tried to support me. They really try to push and keep me on track.”
On the ice, Smith has rarely been off track. But for a few games after his arrival to the Knights, Smith’s scoring dried up. He’s now back to performing at nearly a point-per-game pace with seven goals and 12 assists in 20 games with the Knights. Prior to that, he had amassed 26 goals and 48 points in 40 games with the Owen Sound Attack.
Smith said the difference in the two teams’ styles took a while for him to grow accustomed to.
“It’s definitely a lot different [coming to London] because the teams play two different types of games: here they’re more offensive-minded and free-wheeling, where Owen Sound is more defensive and you do the same things over and over. It was definitely a hard transition,” he explained. “It took me about five or six games to start to get back, but it’s good. I still keep my defensive tendencies, so it helps me improve my game a lot more.”
And, without a doubt, the offensively talented Smith likes the opportunities provided by the high-powered Knights. “I prefer this [style]. I like to use my speed more and I like to create offense,” he added. “I’m a nifty player with some skill, so I like to play that style of game.”
Smith was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars, who used the 104th overall selection on him. He has yet to be signed by the club, but has benefited from camp experience.
“It was great. They just try to help you as much as possible. They were just really nice people there and everyone was very genuine,” he said. “You just have to work hard and try to get better every day.”
He said the Stars gave him pretty simple and direct advice: “Just play hard and keep moving my feet all the time,” he said, adding that he really appreciated the example and support provided by what may seem to be an unlikely source.
“Alex Chiasson,” he said, when asked who helped him the most. “He’s a guy who only played a few games before this year. He’s a great guy and he shows that if you work hard, you’ll get there.”
Hard work is something Smith is not afraid of. His size has been seen as an issue for some, but Smith said he tunes out headlines such as a draft-time Toronto Sun headline that read “Gemel Smith is a Little Man with a Big Dream.”
“Whenever anyone says that I just try to block it out as much as possible, work hard, and play big,” he said. “I like to play big, I like to be physical, and I like the tough games. I believe that playoff teams and championship teams need those type of players, so I try to play hard.
“Whatever happens outside of hockey, it’s none of my concern.”
It’s that commitment to hard work and doing whatever it takes that Smith feels will serve him well long-term. He believes his versatility is an asset that will help him get to the NHL.
“The thing about me is that I believe I can play on every single line,” he said. “I believe I can play on the top two lines, I believe I can play that shutdown role, and I believe I can crash and bang on the third or fourth line.
“I firmly believe I can play any role. Obviously, I’d love to be on the top two lines, but anywhere from first to fourth, I’m fine with.”
Smith said he wants to serve as a role model or inspiration for the next generation — both visible minorities and those who come from less-than-advantagous backgrounds. He has a role model himself in the Stars’ organization that he hopes to emulate.
“Growing up, I looked up to the Stewart twins because they kind of had the same thing that I had,” he said. “And Trevor Daley of Dallas — he grew up in a rough area, things didn’t go well for him, his family didn’t have much money.
“He just shows that if you keep working hard and make the right decisions everything will work out for the best.”
Hard work and positivity are hallmarks of Smith’s mentality. While a guaranteed appearance in the Memorial Cup can’t hurt (as London is the host city), Smith added that he’s going to put every ounce of effort into his future.
“My goal, obviously is to improve my game, get stronger, and hopefully have a chance to make Dallas’ AHL team or the NHL roster,” he explained. “That’s my goal and I’m working hard every day to make that happen.
“I just work hard and usually hockey rewards the team that works hard.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard