With Smith-Pelly, Ducks add a leader to their flock

By Andrew Knoll
Photo: After an immensely successful career in the OHL, Devante Smith-Pelly is hoping to earn a spot with the Anaheim Ducks in the fall. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Skill, poise, tenacity, strength, leadership, a rich pedigree, and a knack for timely play comprise the elements of a winning hockey team.

Anaheim Ducks prospect winger Devante Smith-Pelly delivers all those qualities in one explosive package.

Of Smith-Pelly’s 36 goals for the OHL‘s Mississauga St. Michaels Majors, nearly a third were game-winning tallies. In the playoffs, he tied for the OHL lead in goals and turned in three multi-goal games in the Finals against the Owen Sound Attack. He went on to score six points in five Memorial Cup playoff games.

"He’s a clutch player. Every time I go back and I look at the score sheets, he’s got huge goals for Mississauga. I think he relishes that role," said Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds, who works out with Smith-Pelly in the offseason.

"He’s a great skill player but at the same time, he’s able to go to those dirty areas and he’s not afraid to score from inside the blue paint."

When Smith-Pelly arrives at the NHL level, he will become part of a fast-expanding and tight-knit fraternity of players of African descent.

"I think that will help the game tremendously," Simmonds said. "Especially in trying to get broader ethnicity into the game. Younger kids are going to start seeing that and be like, "Wow, if guys like that can do it, I can do it myself."

A physical forward who imposes his will on seemingly every centimeter of the ice, Smith-Pelly contributed the full array of big plays in key spots for the Majors in their run to the decisive games of both the OHL and Memorial Cup Finals last season.

"He finishes his checks, he likes to hit a lot and he’s just a great player," said Panthers top pick Jonathan Huberdeau, whose Saint John Sea Dogs defeated Mississauga in the Memorial Cup Final.

While Smith-Pelly may struggle slightly to articulate the sensation of swinging a game in his team’s favor, he has no trouble finding motivation to do so on a consistent basis.

"It’s real hard to explain it, I just feel that’s where I need to be at my best is in big games, and I take pride in being able to lead the way in those situations," said the 19-year-old Smith-Pelly. "There’s no better feeling then a big hit or a big goal in a real important game."

That aptitude for performing in high-stakes action starts with unyielding persistence and relentless preparation, qualities developed at a young age in the Smith-Pelly household.

His family brims with character and entrepreneurial spirit. Devante and his younger brother Jalen were born to Wayne, who ran a limousine service, and Jacqueline, who owned a cafe before she began working for Canadian telecommunications giant Telus.

"I think all three of them had a huge part in my career thus far. They have all sacrificed so much for me and I thank them for that," Smith-Pelly said.

Not only has Smith-Pelly impressed at the junior level, where he is an early favorite to make Canada’s World Junior roster next year, he has already wowed NHL players with his commitment.

"He’s a tireless worker," Simmonds said. "He’s always working hard. He’s one of those guys who’s leading those runs, he’s always at the top of the pack."

Simmonds also praised Smith-Pelly’s comprehension level, saying that he and other veterans like the St Louis Blues’ Chris Stewart seldom had to repeat themselves while showing Smith-Pelly the nuances of training to compete in the NHL.

Simmonds and Stewart are part of a sort of surrogate family for Smith-Pelly, a very tight group of players represented by agent Eustace King. They mostly hail from the Toronto area and are of African descent.

"There’s about fifteen of us that are a close-knit group that train together in the summertime," Stewart said. "It’s great to see diversity and it’s great to see those guys playing well."

King, an African-American who played at Miami University, has been credited with strengthening the bond between an already intimate group of friends.

"All of the guys with our agency have known each other for a long time and most come from the same area so its great when you’re in an environment where everyone is trying to help you out since we are all a big family," said Smith-Pelly, who credited Simmonds and Stewart, among others, for pushing him to become a better athlete.

Simmonds compared Smith-Pelly’s play to a bit less edgy version of Stewart’s game, saying he viewed him as a power forward who could set up down low and had the nimble hands to score in tight quarters. That should come as no surprise, given the closeness of Stewart and Smith-Pelly.

"I’m kind of like Devante’s mentor. I took him under my wing," Stewart said.

The group, which also includes players like Carolina’s Anthony Stewart, Washington’s Joel Ward and Dallas’s Trevor Daley, represents a big chunk of a growing demographic in the NHL.

Last year, Smith-Pelly was taken 42nd overall by Anaheim and 13 picks earlier they selected Emerson Etem, an African-American from Long Beach, Calif. It marked the first time two players of African descent had been selected with consecutive picks by an NHL team.

Smith-Pelly said he was encouraged by the growing prevalence and prominence of black players in the NHL, particularly players like Simmonds and Montreal’s P.K. Subban.

He also said that being drafted with Etem brought special satisfaction because the two players had a longstanding relationship.

"Emerson and I have been playing together in summer hockey since we were probablyabout 11-12 years old, so us both getting drafted to the same team is great and it felt good to have someone I pretty much grew up playing with there with me," he said.

There are more players of African descent than ever in the NHL today with a growing number in the pipeline. In the OHL alone, four of the top 12 selections in the 2011 draft were of African descent–Darnell Nurse, Jordan Subban, Nicholas Baptiste, and Stephen Harper.

"I’m excited, the situation I’m in as being an older guy and giving back," said the veteran defenseman Daley. "I know when I was a younger guy, I was able to have guys like Anson Carter, Kevin Weekes, and Tony McKegney to give back to me. It’s the right thing to do and I will continue doing that."

Smith-Pelly has already grown accustomed to the role of mentor and leader himself. In 2011, a pair of his Majors teammates were drafted, defenseman Stuart Percy (TOR) and center Joseph Cramarossa (ANA), both of whom were close friends of Smith-Pelly’s that looked to their peer for guidance.

"We grew to have a strong relationship and we’re still pretty close," Percy said. "I talked to him a lot before the draft about what to expect. He said, ‘Just have fun with it, it’s over before you know it.’"

Cramarossa became a selection of the Ducks, meaning he and Smith-Pelly may be reunited in Anaheim somewhere down the line.

"I’ve known him since I was younger. Coming to St. Mike’s, we became tighter. I drove with him all last year, we’ve been really close with each other," said Cramarossa, a second-generation draft selection. "I’m always with the guy, it’s going to be great going to Anaheim together."

All three players described the Majors program in terms of a loving, family atmosphere. Smith-Pelly said head coach Dave Cameron, now on his way to the Ottawa Senators as an assistant, helped nurture him into a complete, two-way power forward.

"Playing for Dave was a great experience and I owe him a lot for making me the person and player I am today," Smith-Pelly said.

"The biggest lesson I can take from him is you have to carry yourself as a pro starting from this level because you cannot just turn on the switch when your older cause the gap is real small to make the jump."

While at one point there were concerns about Smith-Pelly’s ability to play the power game at the top level because of his size, he has silenced those murmurs with a robust 215 pound physique. He has concentrated on adding more lean muscle to his frame but believes he is already big enough to play the pros.

Beyond his physical attributes, Smith-Pelly said he felt he could be an outstanding checker or a fine complement to a pair of highly skilled players on a scoring line.

Among the players he modeled his game after were a pair of captains, Los Angeles’ Dustin Brown and Calgary’s Jarome Iginla., whom he described as "Leaders type who can score, play physical and will stand up for anyone on their team."

His first step in becoming that type of pro will be making the Anaheim roster out of training camp. After attending two rookie camps and last year’s training camp, Smith-Pelly said he felt at home skating with pros and that he was encouraged by the success of young Ducks like defenseman Cam Fowler last season.

"The experience was unbelievable for the camps. I felt real comfortable overall at every aspect mainly because I really wanted to impress," he said. "Seeing a lot of the younger guys do well too gave me more confidence to do well too."

Smith-Pelly has rounded out his game and his character with the help of his family, coaches, teammates and his workout partners in the NHL. Already proven to be an adaptable player, his next big adjustments may well be to Southern California and the NHL.

The Ducks are in need of grit, size and a strong net-front presence, an area where teammates have described Smith-Pelly as intimidating and unmovable.

"Being in front of the net, that’s where the dirty goals are scored," Smith Pelly told the Orange County Register. "Those are usually the big ones, especially in the playoffs. I don’t mind that. That’s where I like to be."