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Saturday, September 20, 2014

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Maple Leafs’ Smith making the most of his opportunity

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Trevor Smith

For those of you deep into advanced statistics, or hockey analytics as it is also known, the score at the last game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the San Jose Sharks was, House of David, three.

As in, there were three Jewish guys on the ice in the same game, perhaps even at the same time – I’ll have to review the tape on that – which must have been some sort of record. After all, there have been times in the history of the NHL when you’d have been hard pressed to find three guys in the entire league who were Jewish.

On Dec. 3, 2013, when the Sharks recently schooled the Leafs on playing “the right way,” two of the guys playing the right way were Sharks forward Mike Brown and defenceman Jason Demers. Brown, who hails from the Chicago area, played for the Leafs a couple of seasons ago before being traded to Edmonton and then swapped again to San Jose. Not a bad career trajectory.

Demers, whose bio indicates he hails from Dorval, a suburb of Montreal, has been rumoured to be Jewish and has declined CJN requests for an interview. Perhaps another time…

Maple Leaf centre Trevor Smith rounded out the Jewish contingent in the game. A native of Ottawa whose parents hailed originally from Montreal, the family spent a few years in Toronto before moving to Vancouver, where Smith grew up. Smith, 28, has been a standout player in the American Hockey League (AHL). He’s had the proverbial cup of coffee with a number of NHL franchises, including Tampa Bay (16 games), Pittsburgh (one game) and the Islanders (seven games). A free agent last summer, he signed a one-year, one-way contract with the Leafs for a reported $550,000.

Signing in Toronto marks something of a homecoming for him. Like lots of Canadian kids, he relishes the idea of playing for a franchise with the kind of storied history and tradition possessed by the Leafs. It was “a no-brainer,” Smith said in an interview shortly after a Leafs practice.

Early in the season, Smith bounced back between Toronto and its AHL affiliate team, the Marlies, where he was named captain. “In the American League, I’m a veteran guy. I won a championship (2011-12, Norfolk Admirals). I know what it took to win a championship.”   

To date, he’s played way more games with the Leafs than the Marlies, and filled in admirably when given the opportunity.

With injuries to Tyler Bozak, suspensions, and other incidents that depleted the centre ice position, he’s played on an energetic third line consisting of Mason Raymond on one wing and David Clarkson on the other.

Smith has acquitted himself well. In 17 games, he’s scored three goals and added four assists, was at -1 and had a more than respectable shooting percentage of 18.8. He shared the team lead in points for November, with seven.

Playing in a hockey-mad market like Toronto does put pressure on the players, he acknowledged, but “it’s how you take it and run with it and how you put on yourself” that will determine how well you do.

Given the circumstances, “it’s more of an opportunity to make a name for myself and show management and teammates that I can play in the NHL. It’s a great opportunity for me,” he said.

The jump to the NHL was admittedly a challenge. The guys are bigger and faster than in the minors, and they’re very good positionally, he said. The Leafs’ coaches constantly preach that the team has to play the right way all game long, without the wild changes of momentum that has the Leafs excelling one minute, and hemmed into their own zone the next.

As he’s gotten more games under his belt, Smith’s on-ice performance has improved. He was a little “hesitant” in his first game; when he got the puck, he tried to move it as quickly as possible. “Now, I hold on to it and [set up] a play,” the six-foot-one, 195-pound centre said.

“It’s a learning curve,” he continued. “Every game I feel more comfortable and confident.”

During the summer, Smith was recruited to play for the Canadian team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. His father, Harvey, served as an assistant coach on the team, which won the gold medal. Smith was recovering from an injury and had just signed with the Leafs, so he had to turn down the offer, but with regret.

“I would have been upset if Canada had lost because I had not gone,” he said.

The trip would have been Smith’s second to the Holy Land. About eight years ago, he and his brother, Derek, visited the country on a Birthright trip. “It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. I met a lot of cool people. I still keep in touch with them.

“What a beautiful country. I’d love to go back.”

In the meantime, he’s got more pressing items on his agenda, like helping the Leafs play the right way and get out of their doldrums. Oh, and making sure the advanced Jewish stats don’t take one step back.

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