Some might consider it an unenviable role for a graduating junior hockey player.
Matthew Smith is bowing out of the Western Hockey League by mentoring a young Victoria Royals blue line in a losing season that the club hopes will lead to a brighter future of which he won’t be a part.
But the veteran rearguard relishes the role. Even on a Victoria team that is 1-8-1 and quickly running out of time to turn its fortunes in a pandemic-abbreviated 24-game season. That’s because he is just happy to be playing hockey at all.
“This means everything to me,” said Smith. “Especially after all that time off and not knowing if we were going to play or not. Hockey is my life. Just the thought of the possibility of a season kept me going.”
Being able to close out his WHL career, even in truncated fashion, means a great deal to a player whose father, Wes Smith, was a WHL linesman for 12 seasons.
Matthew Smith is a career Royal, in his fourth season with the club, after being selected in the seventh round of the 2015 WHL bantam draft as an undersized and unheralded defenceman. He defied expectations and has been a draft horse on the blueline for Victoria, appearing in 60 or more games in each of the previous three seasons as a reliable defender.
“I want to lead these younger kids by example every day I have with them,” said Smith, who turned 21 this month.
That’s because he remembers the example set for him in his rookie season by then Royals veteran blueliners such as Chaz Reddekopp [now in the AHL/ECHL], Ralph Jarratt and Kade Jensen. He said he wants to pay it forward like they did for him.
“And these [rookies] will do it for the group that comes after them. I believe they are a skilled group and I have faith in them.”
Smith grew up in Saskatoon as a Saskatchewan boy through and through, watching Roughriders football games in Regina with his dad and the hometown Saskatoon Blades in the WHL. But the hand of fate in the WHL draft directed him to the Island, where he became immersed in the West Coast lifestyle. So much so that Smith has chosen to play next season for the UBC Thunderbirds in U Sports.
“Being on the Island influenced that decision to stay on the coast,” he said.
Very few junior players go on to even minor-pro hockey, never mind the NHL. The WHL education plan pays for a year of post-secondary education for every season played in the WHL, so Smith is looking at four years of paid-up schooling. He plans to study business at UBC.
“Pro hockey was the No. 1 goal,” said Smith.
If a pro contract was offered over the summer, he said, he would have to at least look at it.
The Royals play the Kelowna Rockets on Monday. The Rockets (1-1) returned to play Saturday night in a late-finishing game against the Prince George Cougars in the Rockets’ first game in 19 days after a COVID-19 outbreak sidelined the club for nearly three weeks.
All WHL B.C. Division games are being played in the Kelowna and Kamloops hubs.