WESTERN GRAD TO COACH LEAFS

The following article was written by Jim Parker from The Windsor Star.

Photo:  Windsor’s D.J. Smith holds the OHL championship trophy after Oshawa beat Erie 6-2. (AARON BELL/OHL Images)

D.J. Smith played Junior B with the Windsor Royals for two seasons from 1992-94.  In his final season with the Royals he was paired with future NHLer Ed Jovanovski.  Two blue chip prospects on the same team.

Special thanks to GOJHL historian Scott Holland for the background on Smith and Jovanovski.

WINDSOR’S D.J. SMITH HIRED AS LEAFS’ ASSISTANT COACH

More than 18 years ago, Windsor native and former Spitfires captain D.J. Smith made his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Now, after winning two Memorial Cups as an assistant coach in Windsor and one Memorial Cup as the head coach in Oshawa, he’s come full circle.

The 38-year-old Smith signed a reported four-year deal Tuesday as an assistant coach with the Maple Leafs under new head coach Mike Babcock.

“I think there was a void left there when I was a player,” Smith said.

“I didn’t get to fulfil my dream of being an everyday NHLer with my career ended early because of the concussions. I’ve worked hard for 12 or 13 years in this (Ontario Hockey) League to prove myself and now I have to prove myself at this (NHL) level.”

Smith, who will be in charge of running the Leafs’ defence, heads to a team that has not raised the Stanley Cup since 1967 and has a rabid fan base desperate to win.

“I don’t think (fans) will be looking to me,” Smith said. “Pressure is only what you put on yourself.

“I push myself to try and win every game. The pressure for me is to try and get better and win games.”

During Smith’s coaching days with the Spitfires, the club would often take the players to a Red Wings practice run by Babcock to show the younger players what’s expected at the NHL level.

“He’s not only developed players and championships team, but developed a lot of coaches in the NHL, head coaches, and that’s my goal one day,” said Smith, who got a congratulatory text from Babcock after winning the Memorial Cup.

“That’s why I’m excited to be under Mike and to learn the finer details.”

After guiding the Generals to the Memorial Cup in May, Smith was a hot commodity on the coaching market.

“I had a few teams interested and some American Hockey League jobs,” Smith said.

“At the end of the day, I wasn’t able to go to the American (Hockey) League but, by far, this was the most intriguing job and the job I wanted.”

Smith’s contract with Generals owner Rocco Tullio of Windsor allowed him to take a job at the NHL level, but not at the AHL level.

Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas and director of player personnel Mark Hunter approached Tullio to get permission to speak with Smith.

“Rocco was true to his word and said it was something I couldn’t turn down,” Smith said.

“I met with Mike (Babcock) and it was Mike’s decision. We met two times in a short period. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon and went over some instructional stuff and had some good talks.”

Smith was one of three assistant coaches hired by Babcock. He also brought in Jim Hiller and Andrew Brewer, who both worked on Babcock’s staff in Detroit.

“I’m excited to have them join the organization,” Babcock said on the team’s website. “We have a lot of work ahead of us but are all thrilled to be part of the Maple Leafs.”

Smith nearly got to play for Babcock in 1996-97 when he was coaching Canada’s world junior team, which won gold that year. An injury to his knee and hamstring kept Smith from making the team.

Smith made his debut with the Maple Leafs a few months later after wrapping up a three-year career with the Spitfires where he produced 33 goals and 143 points in 188 games along with 651 penalty minutes.

Originally a second-round pick by the New York Islanders, he was dealt to the Maple Leafs in March of 1996 as part of a blockbuster deal with Wendell Clark and Mathieu Schneider for Kenny Jonsson, Darby Hendrickson, Sean Haggerty and a first-round pick that eventually became Roberto Luongo.

He appeared in eight games with the Maple Leafs in 1996-97 and another three in 1999-2000. He played in another 34 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2002-03 before concussions ended his career the following season.

Former Spitfires head coach Dave Prpich brought him on as an assistant coach in 2004-05.

Smith remained as an assistant when Bob Boughner and Warren Rychel took over ownership of the Spitfires in 2006. After back-to-back Memorial Cup titles and another trip to the Western Conference final, Smith was hired as head coach of the Generals.

In three seasons, he compiled a record of 135-53-3-13 (a .701 winning percentage) and was named OHL coach of the year in 2014.

“Winning opens a lot of doors,” Smith said.

Smith said there shouldn’t be any major differences between coaching pro and junior players.

“I’ve kept in contact with pro guys back in Windsor and they all say the same thing,” Smith said.

“They want to be pushed and get better and they want a coach to push to get better. They have different things in their lives, but at the end of day all players want to get better.”

 

David Honsberger

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