Sticking to the basics should help Givani Smith stay focused on his ultimate goal – to become a bonafide NHL contributor as a power forward.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
When Givani Smith was growing up, he thought playing in the NHL would be neat but figured it was a youthful aspiration, not knowing how one could reach the heights of playing in the top hockey league in the world.
Smith and his three brothers played hockey simply because they enjoyed the sport, not because they had hopes of someday being able to make a living at it.
“When we were young playing minor hockey, we didn’t know how to get to the NHL or even to the next level,” he recalled. “We’d see guys in the NHL and we thought, ‘That’s cool. How do you even get there?’ When my older brother (Gemel) got drafted by the OHL when he was 16, I was 12. I thought, 'That’s cool.’ But I wasn’t sure what the OHL even was.”
All Smith knew was that his parents had to make sacrifices to allow their four sons to enjoy a sport that demanded considerable time and money to play. As emigrants from Jamaica to Canada, where they met and married, they wanted to afford their boys a chance to pursue their dreams – a fact that was not lost on the third-youngest son of a steelworker, Gary, and a nurse, Nickey.
The value of hard work was evident in the Smith home.
“They never preached it, but when you’re in the home, you just see it,” Givani said. “We knew our dad got up early in the morning and would be gone to work before we even got up for school. When you see that, it influences your brain and makes you realize that life does not come easy.”
His father was athletic – he played ball hockey – but ice sports were largely foreign to the family’s heritage. As a result, advice was kept to a minimum.
“My dad was never really big on telling me how to play the game,” Smith said. “He trusted my coaches and let me do my own thing. During car rides after a loss, my dad was never in my ear about how I played or that I could have played better. We would just go get food, have fun and talk.”
For most of his years, from age 6 to 16, his coach was Bob Thrower, who recognized Smith’s talent at a young age and helped mentor him when he was coaching the AAA Mississauga Senators while Givani was still a student in the Peel school district.
“He was a good coach, but he was also a good role model for me growing up,” Smith said. “When my mom or dad couldn’t drive me to hockey, Bob would drive us to the rink or take us to tournaments. He and my dad got along really well, too. He and his son Eric were like family to me, so with him being my head coach, it was just a nice dynamic.”
His older brother, Gemel, was a 2010 OHL Priority Selection of the Owen Sound Attack, which encouraged him to keep pursuing his dream.
“I figured if I could keep playing pretty good, maybe I could get there, too,” he said. “My entire mindset was 1) I just wanted to win, and 2) I wanted to become better than everyone. I constantly wanted to get better, every single game, every single year.
“If I kept getting better, there would be no limitations on what I could do.”
And when Gemel was chosen by the Dallas Stars in the fourth round (104th overall) of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Givani set his sights on following in his big brother’s footsteps. After a couple of solid junior seasons with the Barrie Colts and Guelph Storm, Givani felt prepped for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo.
“That was a great time,” he said. “With Buffalo being a short drive and knowing I would probably get drafted, I brought my family, friends and supporters who helped me along the way to get to that spot. I had about 20 people there.”
The Red Wings selected Smith in the second round, 46th overall. From his grandparents to his siblings to extended family, Smith was excited to share the thrill of being drafted with those who had made a difference in his life.
“It was a very special moment to think about,” he said. “I had played with so many different players and so many of my friends had dreamed about someday getting drafted that I felt very fortunate to be a part of the draft.”
Smith saw action in three AHL games with Grand Rapids the following spring before excelling during his overage year when he split the 2017-18 season between the Storm and the Kitchener Rangers, the latter having traded for his rights for a late playoff push.
In Kitchener, Smith tallied nine goals and 10 assists in 27 regular season games then blossomed during the postseason, when he recorded 11 goals and seven assists for 18 points in 18 playoff contests.
“I really enjoy playoff hockey,” he said. “When it’s playoff time, you can just tell everything is different, from the fans to the games to the whole atmosphere. It’s a time when you play old-school hockey.”
He gives credit to his teammates for making him look good. He played regularly on a line centered by Logan Brown, a first-round NHL draft pick of the Ottawa Senators currently playing in the AHL with Belleville. Playing right wing was Kole Sherwood, now a member of the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters who saw NHL action earlier this season with Columbus Blue Jackets.
Smith appeared in 64 games with the Griffins last season, his rookie campaign in the AHL when he showed plenty of potential but also revealed the rough edges that come with the adjustment to the pro ranks.
“It was my first year in the AHL, so it was all new to me,” he said. “I wasn’t discouraged about my year. I knew that I was not ready to play in the NHL at that time. I knew I had things to learn.
“There’s the game on the ice but there’s your life off the ice as well. You’re living by yourself so there are all these small things you have to pick up. As I started to feel more comfortable, I started to find my identity in terms of who I am as a person, and I think it helped smooth my transition to my second year.”
Griffins head coach Ben Simon said Smith, like many young players coming to the pros from the junior leagues, faced a considerable growing curve. Many prospects underestimate how tough it is to play in the AHL.
“It’s a good league and you can get eaten up if you’re not ready for it,” he said. “We gave Givani an opportunity to play on the power play and in the top six right off the bat and he was OK, but he wasn’t quite ready for the responsibility that we gave him and his struggles might be on us to a certain extent.”
Smith benefitted from the arrival of Derek Hulak in Grand Rapids after the Griffins signed the well-traveled, experienced forward early last season. Hulak, who had played two seasons with the Texas Stars alongside Givani’s brother Gemel, helped mentor Detroit’s young prospect.
“I think Givani might have been overwhelmed with the experience of becoming a pro, and credit to him for working his tail off to improve,” Simon said. “He also surrounded himself with the right people like Derek, who took Givani under his wing and showed him the things you need to be a good pro.”
As he had the previous couple of seasons, Smith also spent the summer in Detroit, opting to stay in Michigan rather than heading back to the Toronto area.
“Stay focused, stay out of trouble,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to skate and train every day, to work out with the young guys coming up, guys like Joe (Veleno), Raz (Michael Rasmussen), and Z (Filip Zadina). It’s a chance to be around all those guys and build a little camaraderie in the summertime.
“It’s all about focusing on getting better.”
Smith got off to a strong start this season. He tallied two goals and two assists in the Griffins’ first three games, which led to his first NHL recall. He made his NHL debut at Little Caesars Arena against Buffalo on Oct. 25. He registered 11:01 of playing time, had two shots, one hit and was even in a 2-0 loss.
“From the day I got drafted to the point where I got to play in the NHL, it had been three years, so it felt amazing,” he said. “It’s nice to see when your hard work pays off. I thought about all the time I spent in the summer in Detroit away from my family and friends and how all those workouts had paid off.”
Surprisingly, Smith said he felt few nerves before his first NHL appearance.
“I tried to keep my game simple and do what I have to do to get my job done. Taking that approach took away some of the pressure,” he said. “It’s another game, but when I reflected on it with my parents, coaches and family, you realize it’s the NHL. We talked about it afterward and it was like, ‘Wow, it’s the NHL. It’s crazy.’
“I did the work, but I didn’t get there by myself. The game was like a ‘thank you’ to them, and the Red Wings organization did a great job of bringing everybody in and making them all feel comfortable.
“Plus my family and friends got to meet Dylan (Larkin) after the game, which was really nice for them.”
Smith has subsequently appeared in several more games for the Red Wings as he bounces back and forth between Detroit and Grand Rapids. He is getting the opportunity to experience the axiom that it’s hard to get to the NHL, but it’s even harder to stay.
“For every player, your second season in the pros is a very important year, so for myself, it was good to get off to a good start,” he said. “It helped fuel my confidence and hopefully will help me keep having a strong year to make a statement for whenever the next call comes.”
Smith said he’s had good talks, not only with Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill but also general manager Steve Yzerman and senior vice president Jim Devellano. “It’s mostly simple things,” he said. “I’m still growing as a person, and every day is a new day, every year is a new year.
“As long as I can keep improving, I can be happy with that.”
As a power forward, Smith is at his best when he’s skating, being strong on the forecheck, getting to the so-called dirty areas of the ice, and making his presence felt at all times.
“When I’m playing well, I’m doing the things I need to do, whether it’s making a simple play along the wall or skating so I can be physical on every shift to cause turnovers and create scoring chances,” he said.
“If I’m skating hard so the defense is always checking over their shoulders and rushing their plays, I can help create space for my teammates. I’m finishing my checks, making it tough on the other team to play against.
“When I’m playing good hockey, it’s a lot of simple things that I know I need to do.”
Smith feels as though he’s made the first steps toward proving that he can be a bonafide NHL contributor.
“I’m in a positive mindset right now,” he said. “As a team, we’ve been struggling, but we have a lot of young guys and a lot of potential, so as we start playing better together, we’ll start winning more hockey games.
“It’s going to be exciting.”