Defenseman Brendan Smith hopes to make a name for himself on the way to earning a job in the NHL.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
There are close to three million North Americans named Smith, with roughly about one percent (or more than 30,000) of them also sharing the first name of Brendan.
In other words, it is a fairly common name that is not likely to get you noticed, so it helps to have some kind of talent or skill if you’re looking to stand out from the crowd.
Canadian-born Brendan Smith, 21, would like to make a name for himself in the NHL, but it looks like Griffins fans are going to have the opportunity to get to know the Red Wings prospect first.
“He’s been one of the best defensemen in college hockey, so I think he’ll be able to step into Grand Rapids and make an immediate impact,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “In training camp with the Wings, he didn’t look out of place at all. If anything, he looked very strong.”
Fraser does not think Smith will take long to adapt to the style of play in the AHL, thanks to his uncommon talent and the hockey smarts that he developed at the University of Wisconsin. “I don’t think he’s going to have trouble adjusting,” Fraser said.
Families in the blue-collar neighborhood of Mimico, Ontario, have known the Smith family for many years.
There were many times when the basement of Lester and Deirdre Smith was filled with boys playing with mini hockey sticks, and the outcome was almost always the same.
Brendan and his older brother Rory and younger brother Reilly were extraordinarily competitive and they didn’t like to lose. Ever.
“When we were younger, we were so competitive,” Smith said. “We would have three or four friends over to play mini-sticks until there would be six or seven of us. By the end of the night, it would only be us three and the other kids would be upstairs crying and sitting with my parents.”
With boys being boys, things sometimes ended up getting broken. “We broke lots of stuff – vases, TVs, couches, doors – but our parents still encouraged us to keep playing. The only time we got in trouble was when we got into fights.”
Brendan and his brothers also played lacrosse. “We were actually better at lacrosse than hockey,” he said. “I loved playing lacrosse, but your options are limited if you want to turn pro. To keep the dream alive, it’s kind of a tough life. Most guys have to work double jobs.”
Nevertheless, Smith played lacrosse into his teens. “Hockey players like Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts play the sport because it’s great conditioning since you’re always running and it requires good eye-hand coordination,” Smith said. “But I went strictly hockey around age 16 or 17 as hockey got a little more demanding.”
Smith honed his offensive skills with the St. Michael’s Buzzers of the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League, but it was at Wisconsin where he truly blossomed as a player while overcoming injuries to his back and wrist.
Under the tutelage of head coach Mike Eaves and his Badger staff, Smith took significant strides defensively.
“They totally changed my game while emphasizing the little things that I never really learned until I went to college: the importance of making that first good pass, how to block shots or use your stick effectively,” he said.
“Coach Eaves uses a method called TWIG – ‘Take What Is Given’ and I live by that motto. When you try to force plays, that’s when you get yourself into trouble. You need to keep things simple.”
Smith was the first pick of the Red Wings in 2007 when the organization selected him in the first round (27th overall) of the NHL Entry Draft. As a result of being chosen so high in the draft, Smith realizes expectations are high.
“I’ll put pressure on myself because I want to be the best that I can be,” he said. “It fuels the fire and makes me want to produce and make the NHL even earlier. I think it’s a good type of pressure.”
Smith exploded with a monster season as a Wisconsin junior last year. In 42 games, he tallied 15 goals and 37 assists for 52 points, which led all NCAA defensemen in scoring and tied for sixth overall. His performance set the stage for his signing a three-year entry-level contract with the Red Wings last May.
“Obviously I love Wisconsin and you want to come out with a degree,” said Smith, who was majoring in sociology. “It was a tough decision, but after I had done so well this past season, I was ready to be challenged more. I just think it’s the right timing for me to turn pro. I talked to my coach and he agreed.”
Days after signing his contract, Smith got into a well-publicized scrap outside a Madison home that led to a disorderly conduct charge, immediately prompting concerns among the Red Wings’ faithful that Detroit might have enlisted a problem.
Smith insists they need not worry.
“I just want people to get to know me and understand who I am, and that people can be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “If people get to know me, I’m not like what they read on the Internet.”
He plans to stay focused on his primary objective: making himself a better hockey player. “I want to come to every practice and improve myself. Obviously I would like to play in Detroit, but if I’m in Grand Rapids, that’s great because I’m learning the system.”
Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock has gone on record saying that he is excited by Smith’s game-breaking ability. But Babcock knows the young defenseman faces a steep learning curve in order to develop into a more-rounded player.
“Game-breakers have a tendency to want to break the game all the time,” Babcock told a group of reporters after a training camp practice in Traverse City this fall. “As you become a pro, you realize lots of shifts, nothing happens and you wait for opportunity and then you take advantage. And then you don’t get yourself into trouble because you’re not forcing things.”
Patience will be key.
“For me, the biggest thing is being responsible defensively,” Smith said. “I know my upside is my offense, so the Red Wings will want to know that I’ve adapted and learned the defensive side of the game.”
Smith feels like he has already made giant strides. “You can always improve and get better, but I think my defensive game has already improved,” he said. “My play is 10 times better than it was a few years ago.”
He said his parents are excited that his apprenticeship will begin closer to home. “Wisconsin was a 12-hour drive for them, so they’re kind of excited about that,” he said. “My family is very close, so it’s awesome that they will be able to watch me even more.”
Getting the chance to make a name for himself in the pros may take time, and that’s alright by him. “Whether I’m in Detroit or Grand Rapids, it’s a win-win situation. Either way, I’m in a great organization.”