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Golden Opportunity

Givani Smith shared his story with Griffins Youth Foundation players and their families at a special Black History Month dinner at Griff’s IceHouse.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

When Detroit Red Wings prospect Givani Smith recently spoke to a group of Griffins Youth Foundation (GYF) players and their families at a special gathering held in his honor, he made an observation regarding the journey that every hockey player makes in pursuit of playing in the NHL.

“I used to be in your shoes not too long ago,” he said.

Smith, the Wings’ second-round pick (46th overall) in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, was the guest at a dinner celebrating diversity and the role that the Griffins Youth Foundation plays in eliminating the financial barriers that prevent boys and girls from enjoying hockey and ice-related sports.

“We refer to ourselves as a foundation family, and when you have a family you celebrate the uniqueness of everyone,” said Lynn Rabaut, the foundation’s executive director. “One of our directives is to make sure that hockey is available to all regardless of race, gender or physical ability.

“Tonight was a prime example of us being able to celebrate a part of who we are by providing the opportunity for Givani to meet our players and families. Our kids may never make it to the NHL, but it’s incredibly important for them to see that it takes determination and commitment to achieve what you want in life.”

A Toronto native, Smith made an appearance at Griff’s IceHouse at Belknap Park on Feb. 4 during a Black History Month event that underscored the Griffins Youth Foundation’s efforts to further its mission to help minorities and underprivileged youth enjoy the opportunity to play hockey.

The event included video highlights of Smith’s young career as well as those of other black hockey players including Willie O’Ree, who was the first black player in the National Hockey League. Guests at the GYF dinner watched the Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech by the man known as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”

“Believe it or not, on Jan. 18, 1958, when I stepped on the ice with the (Boston) Bruins, it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier,” O’Ree said during his HOF speech. “I didn’t realize that I had made history until I read it in the paper the next day.

“All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity.”

The GYF guests heard how O’Ree, now an ambassador for the NHL, continues to travel across North America to introduce boys and girls to the game of hockey while sharing important life lessons. “Hockey teaches us, most importantly, about setting goals,” O’Ree said. “My mission is to give them the same opportunity I was given.”

Like O’Ree, the Griffins Youth Foundation is working to expand opportunities for kids who would not be able to participate in ice-related activities if not for the generosity of the businesses and individuals who help support its various programs.

Smith talked about his own experience during a Q&A session hosted by Bob Kaser, the Griffins’ vice president of community relations and broadcasting.

Canadian by birth, Smith talked about his Caribbean roots, how his parents and grandparents are originally from Jamaica. Smith said he feels very fortunate that he was able to play a sport that he grew to love at an early age.

“I started playing hockey at the age of six and I liked it so much,” he said. “I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to play and a lot of people helped me out. I was able to attend hockey schools and got the chance to work on my skills so I could get where I am today.

“I had an uncle who told me that in order to reach your goals, you have to train when you don’t want to. You have to shoot pucks until you’re tired. You have to do something every day, all those little things that will make you a better hockey player. I took that advice to heart because I wanted to play in the NHL.”

Smith is thankful that his parents were supportive of his desire to play hockey.

“I come from a big family,” Smith said. “I have two older brothers and one younger brother, and we all played hockey so it was tough for them to go from one practice to the next, starting at 6 a.m. It took a lot of hard work on their part as well.”

Smith talked about the excitement of being chosen by the Red Wings in the draft after Kaser mentioned that the Detroit organization wanted to secure not only Smith’s hat and jersey from the draft for a Black History Month celebration at Little Caesars Arena, but also the bowtie he wore on that memorable day.

“I had my whole family in Buffalo during draft day, and to be able to see their excitement and the expressions on their faces was just priceless because they had put so much hard work into helping me get there,” Smith said.

“Getting drafted by the Red Wings was really special. Growing up, just playing hockey was fun, but coming from Canada, there’s so much history around the game. To get drafted was an unbelievable experience, especially because I was chosen by an Original Six team like Detroit.”

Smith’s older brother, Gemel, was drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2012 and is now playing in the Boston Bruins organization. Kaser asked Smith if he thought about someday playing against his brother in the NHL.

“We’ve talked about it,” he said. “We played against each other growing up, whether it was outside or in our backyard. To someday have our family and all these people cheering us on in the NHL would be something really special.”

Smith was asked whether he felt any pressure being black in a predominately white sport.

“With older brothers having played minor hockey before me, they told me that I might run into a few roadblocks, but that I should never let those things let me down,” he said. “I’ve taken my brothers’ advice to heart and just tried to focus on hockey.”

Smith was asked what will it take for him to eventually earn the opportunity to play for the Red Wings.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” he said. “When you get drafted, you think you’ve made it, but you learn that it’s going to take more hard work. You have to play for the farm team and play well to get the chance to showcase your skills for the NHL.”

The Black History Month dinner guests heard about Smith’s progress through junior hockey. One young GYF player asked him about his first goal. “My first-ever goal was on my own team,” Smith confessed, causing the crowd to erupt in laughter. “But my second goal was really nice.”

Smith noted that he was very happy when he scored his first goal in a Griffins jersey, on Dec. 7 in Rockford. “It was amazing,” he said. “It’s my first year playing in Grand Rapids and my first year playing pro. I’ve learned that it’s a really tough league, so getting that first goal out of the way was really special.”

He confided that playing hockey professionally was always his singular goal. “Hockey was my only plan,” he said. “I was a really focused kid. I told myself that I was going to be a hockey player and that was always my focus.”

Following the Q&A session, Smith posed for photos and signed autographs for the young fans while the closing message they had heard earlier from O’Ree’s induction speech resonated in the room.

“True strength comes from diversity and inclusion,” O’Ree said. “It makes kids and families better and it makes the game better, (but) we are not done because the work is not done. There are still barriers to break… and opportunities to give.”

Smith and the Griffins Youth Foundation will continue to do what they can to make a difference. For volunteer opportunities or to see how you can make a charitable contribution to the foundation, visit griffinskids.org.

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