When he is told he can’t do something — and with the way his hockey career is developing, that’s not happening much anymore — Gemel Smith glances at his chest.
“I’ve got a tattoo that says ‘Only God can judge me,’ just to show that I don’t care what anyone says,” Smith said on Saturday at the NHL 2012 draft combine at the Toronto International Centre. “Every time someone says I can’t, I just look down and know that this is all that really matters.”
The Owen Sound Attack forward and Toronto native was slotted No. 37 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in its final rankings for the entry draft, June 22-23 in Pittsburgh. Smith projects to be picked late in the second round or somewhere in the third, but like just about every prospect who will be selected in three weeks, there will be no guarantee that the 18-year-old will have one shift in the NHL. If Smith never does play in the NHL, however, it will not be for lack of resilience or determination.
With just two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League on his resume, Smith already is an accomplished winner, winning the OHL title with the Attack last year and a gold medal with Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last August. An energetic player who has become a fan favourite in Owen Sound, Smith recorded 60 points in 68 games in 2011-12, representing a sizable leap from the 16 points he had as a rookie in 66 games the previous season.
But at 5-foot-10 and 161 pounds, Smith was among the shortest and lightest prospects to endure the rigorous physical tests at the combine. Yet challenges along the way mostly are all he has known — he has been told that his size might hold him back — so sweating it out with a bunch of bigger teenagers didn’t send him for a loop.
For Smith, who spent part of his childhood in Rexdale at Albion and Weston, growing up wasn’t always a walk in the park. There were times when there was not always enough money for hockey — with one of his coaches as a contact, Smith would get equipment from Dallas Stars defenceman Trevor Daley — and the neighbourhood environment wasn’t always top-notch.
“I think it made me much tougher mentally and physically, things you have to go through,” Smith said. “Walking into your building and a bunch of people would be there and they would try to pick a fight and you can’t watch one friend get hurt, it’s just not what you do, so you would have to help them out. Every now and then when I was trying to sleep you would hear people yelling outside, every now and then you would hear a gunshot. After a while it became normal to me and I adapted to it. That made me a lot stronger.”
Smith’s father Gary is a steelworker and his mother Nickey is a nurse. But with four boys in the house, though his parents encouraged him, hockey for Gemel never was a foregone conclusion, considering the cost.
“There were a lot of times when my parents (now separated) told me I might have to stop playing hockey because I had three brothers and it was expensive,” Smith said. “But I had a lot of people help me, like my aunt, my coaches. There were times I would go in my room and cry because I wanted to make the NHL and my parents did not have the money. But I just kept my head down and kept grinding and did whatever I had to do.”
The NHL club that selects Smith will get a kid who has earned a reputation as a hard worker, and one who bucked the odds to make an impact in the OHL after he was picked in the sixth round by Owen Sound in 2010 from the North York Rangers. He’s a quick player who has never let his lack of size, comparatively speaking, hold him back. Once the draft is over, he will have to impress just one team.
“It’s good for a change to be noticed for something,” Smith said. “Growing up I never really was (in hockey). I guess I flew under the radar. Definitely excited. It’s hard to stay level, but it is something you just have to do.”
EVOLUTION KEY FOR PROSPECTS
For Gemel Smith and the majority of other prospects selected in the NHL entry draft, an ability to adjust to a different role largely could determine whether they have a long pro career.
A player such as Nail Yakupov won’t be told to become a third-line checker, but for someone such as Smith, who should improve next season on the 60 points he had in 2011-12 with Owen Sound, keeping that scoring pace in the NHL is a lot to ask. It’s the same for many who have lit up the junior leagues.
“You can be a high-scoring junior, and then as you transition to the NHL, you find your niche and you find your identity,” Calgary Flames director of amateur scouting Tod Button said. “You never want to put limits on guys or pigeonhole them, but kids are smart and they will figure out what to do and do to get to the front office. You get your foot in the door and then you evolve. You have to figure it out at some point.”