Knights get tough up front

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, FREE PRESS SPORTS COLUMNIST

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

As London Knights management watched last season draw to a close, seeing the Plymouth Whalers physically dominate their club in the Western Conference championship, they knew one thing for certain . . . they needed to get bigger and stronger.

There was never any question of the Knights' ability to compete with anyone on a skill level, but they were short on players with a combination of size and skill.

The Knights looked to remedy the situation immediately. They traded for Akim Aliu and signed free agent Pat Maroon, both big players with big skill.

But they still needed a tough grinder, the kind of player who could handle himself and the puck. Someone who could chip in with a few goals.

The Knights hope Cody Smith is that kind of player.

Knights general manager Mark Hunter dealt forward Luke VanMoerkerke to the Brampton Battalion for Smith. It was one of those deals that doesn't make much of a splash. Smith hadn't played much for Brampton, spending most of his time with the Pickering Tier II junior A club.

But when the Knights brought Pickering coach Pat Curcio aboard as an assistant, he was familiar with Smith.

"Cody didn't really get much of an opportunity to show he was a good hockey player as a rookie," Curcio said. "When he came back to us last year, he proved he was an all-round player. He hit. He fought. He scored goals. He was a leader in the dressing room on and off the ice. I really liked his character."

If that's the case, Smith fills the Knights job description.

Smith saw his first action with his new team last night and saw NHL No. 1 pick Pat Kane score five goals in London's 8-3 win over the Sarnia Sting in their OHL preseason opener.

When you read some of the physical statistics provided by hockey teams for their players, you're left wondering whether players have somehow been compacted or gone on the shrinking man's diet.

There isn't much excess anything on Smith's six-foot-two, 199-pound body. During fitness training he bench-pressed 150 pounds -- 37 times.

"I like to stay in shape, make sure I'm ready for anything that happens on the ice, whether it's a fight or a long shift," Smith said.

The day when a team could keep a guy who is strictly a disturber is over. Tough guys have to be able to play.

"There's always a couple of guys who are close to your heart," Curcio said. "Cody's one of those guys. We had two Game 7s in the playoffs and six games in overtime. He scored in every Game 7 and had a couple of game winners.

"Cody will stand up for his teammates, he's not afraid of anyone. But he's also a great forechecker. When he goes to the net, he creates trouble for defenceman. A guy with his strength, he's hard to stop with the new rules. It's hard to find those guys."

Smith's a 19-year-old. He was undrafted in the OHL and made Brampton's team as a walk-on. But he spent most of his first year with them in the press box.

"I knew I could do something with a second chance," Smith said. "I didn't really get a chance with Brampton but I know I can play.

"It's huge, especially coming down to my last couple of years in the OHL. The last few years are big for me. If you do well, you can get signed so hopefully they'll work out for me. I didn't play much but that too was a learning experience."

Smith doesn't like to be labelled a disturber.

"I'm a grinder, a two-way player, someone out there blocking shots, digging the puck out of the corners," said Smith. "I take care of things in my own end and just go to the net at the other end and hope it goes in the back of the net. You try to be a leader on the ice by example. But if I have to, I'll protect my teammates."

Smith is willing to accept whatever this year brings but there's one thing he wants more than anything.

"I hope I do well but I will enjoy the year if my team is winning. That's all I really play hockey for. To me it wasn't fun unless I'm winning," said Smith.

Smith still has to prove he can play at this level but if attitude is a good jumping off point, he's off to a good start.


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