Success stories in life can be measured in different ways. In junior hockey, many of these stories are just beginning to be written. And yet, there are some players that, to date, can already be deemed successful.
Enter Colin Smith of the Kamloops Blazers, a diminutive forward who finds himself only 20 games shy of the 300-career game mark in the Western Hockey League. At 19 years of age, Smith currently sits among the scoring leaders with 93 points, trailing only the Portland Winterhawks' high-octane pair of Brandon Leipsec (NAS) and Nic Petan (2013).
Smith arrived in the WHL as a 16-year-old, well aware of suggestions that size was a huge determining factor associated with hockey success. To make matters worse, a freak on-ice mishap resulted in Smith breaking his arm. The injury forced the native of Edmonton, AB to watch much of his first season from the sidelines.
Since that mishap, according to some rudimentary research and a quick conversation with Blazers athletic therapist Colin “Toledo” Robinson, it appears Smith has not missed a game. With 279 games under his belt, Smith has proven that playing a supposedly big man’s game is eminently do-able. The fact that he has done it all at a very high level also speaks to his persistence, his passion, and his desire to stay in the lineup.
“I was pretty unfortunate when I first came in and that happened,” Smith said in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “It was tough to take as a 16-year-old. But over the years here, I sure owe a lot to our trainer (Robinson). It’s just all about taking care of yourself, the minor injuries, so that you can play as much as you can. Getting into games is valuable and then the big games at the end of the year are the games you really want to play in.”
As a rookie, Smith arrived in Blazerville when the team truly was in transition. A new ownership group, including Blazers alumni Jarome Iginla, Mark Recchi and Daryl Sydor, had recently taken over. There was renewed but cautious enthusiasm in Kamloops, but the team continued to languish in the standings. All of this, in a city that had grown used to elite teams providing historic success and Memorial Cup titles.
Today, the winning ways of the current edition has Smith both motivated and reflective.
“It’s been exciting, not only for me, but also for the team,” he said of the Blazers success this season. “When I first came into the league, our team was kind of in the middle of the pack. It took a huge effort for us to change that. Then last year, we made a huge step forward and now we want to carry that over this year to do something special.”
Kamloops won an amazing 14 straight games out of the gate this season, due in large part to the scoring exploits of Smith and linemates Tim Bozon (MTL) and JC Lipon. Bozon, from Switzerland, one of the imports playing for Kamloops, established his offensive skills last season as a rookie. Lipon, from Regina, has emerged this season and earned a spot on Team Canada’s roster at the 2013 WJC in Russia.
“We brought in a guy like Tim,” Smith said, “then JC (Lipon) and I found some chemistry with him. Recently, we made some changes (to the forward lines), and I think that gives our attack some different variety now. It has really been working for everybody.”
Kale Kessy (PHX) has joined Smith and Bozon of late, providing the kind of size and grit that produces open ice for offensive catalysts. Lipon has been skating with veterans Brendan Ranford and Dylan Willick recently, effectively spreading the offense around.
Head coach Guy Charron, who is now in his third season at the helm in Kamloops, recognizes that Smith is an intense player.
“He is a very dedicated and determined young man,” Charron said. “He sets goals, both personal and also for the team. Colin has it in his mind that he wants to make a career in hockey. Now as a veteran player, he’s evolving into a leader and because he has been drafted he is even more focused on both personal and team achievements.”
For Smith, selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the seventh round, 192nd overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft, playing this season as a drafted junior is very meaningful. It is an understatement to suggest he was disappointed at the 2011 NHL Draft when he was passed over by all 30 teams. Some might suggest the snub has to some degree created a player who shows up on game day with a chip on his shoulder. However, it would seem Smith has simply gone about his business with the requisite commitment and work ethic.
“Getting picked by Colorado was a huge honour,” Smith said. “But I think it was important for me to have learned the summer before when I didn’t get picked.
“You really have to look at yourself and think about what you have to do. Sure, I got picked this summer, but it was in the seventh round, so maybe I have some work to do to prove some people wrong? I had to work on the things in my game that are real assets, and show people what I can do. I think I’ve been able to do that a bit this season.”
Through 60 games, Smith has scored 37 goals and 56 assists, while compiling a plus-29 rating. Over the course of his four full seasons in the WHL, Smith has seen his scoring totals increase every year, including his 85-point output last year. And while the numbers are impressive, there is another category that warrants closer scrutiny; that number is games played. Smith has not missed a regular season game since the 2009-10 season. It’s perhaps heady stuff for an offensive forward who checks in at 5’11” and 175 pounds. It would certainly appear that size didn’t really matter to the Blazers, as they selected Smith in the first round, seventh overall, at the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft.
“I try and play hard”, Smith said, when asked about his obvious durability and his penchant for staying out of harm’s way. “I don’t worry too much about stuff like that because I’ve been a smaller guy my whole life. I think that has taught me over the years how to play. You might see me take some big hits, but that’s the nature of the game. I’ve played hard all my life. I want to play the game with a lot of passion.”
Charron is also impressed with Smith’s durability and discipline.
“This year, a lot of teams have paid a lot of attention to him,” Charron said. “He usually has a checking line on him and they play him hard. Whether those players realize it, well, I think they realize it by now, Colin will not back away.
“One thing I try to do is make sure he understands that he is more valuable to us on the ice, so he has to stay away from scrums and those kinds of things because we do not want to see him in the penalty box or, for that matter, injured.”
Playing hard all his life may in part come from his surroundings in his hometown, Edmonton. Or perhaps more specifically, because of the players he has chummed around with since his minor hockey days. Smith speaks of fellow WHL players Mark McNeill (CHI), Keegan Lowe (CAR), Reece Scarlett (NJ), Jaynen Rissling (WAS) and Mitch Holmberg as friends scattered throughout the league. You can also add to the mix Dillon Simpson (EDM), who is currently in his junior year at the University of North Dakota.
“I think it’s pretty unique for a lot of the Edmonton guys, because we all played plenty of summer hockey together for about four years,” Smith said. “There’s at least six first-rounders from those teams back then and every summer I go home I see the same guys. We’re real good friends. We skate and train together. It’s a tight-knit group and I think our competitiveness has helped us to push each other.”
As the current campaign moves into the home stretch, the Blazers remain among the WHL’s top teams. Given where the group has come from during Smith’s career in Kamloops, there are huge expectations for a deep playoff run this season.
“That’s the most important thing, especially for the guys who have been here a long time,” Smith said. “It’s rewarding to have this opportunity. It’s not too often that you have a great chance to do something special with a group of guys, to do something together that you’ll always be able to remember.”