Smith gets his chance

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

Players like Dan Smith represent everything endearing and good about the game of hockey.

If Edmonton Oilers equipment man Sparky Kulchisky hangs a jersey in Smith's stall before Colorado arrives to open the 2005-06 NHL season tomorrow, the veteran defenceman will be thrilled to get it and honoured to wear it -- if only until Igor Ulanov returns from the injured reserve list and takes his place on the roster.

For players like Smith, who last had a cup of coffee in the NHL during a three-game stint with the Avalanche in 1999-2000, there's none of the sense of entitlement that can come after years of employment and big cheques in The Show.

With just 15 NHL games and 426 more in the minors on his resume since he hacked and battled his way into pro hockey from the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, Smith hasn't had that luxury.

So, after getting a spot on the 23-man roster yesterday, Smith intends to approach what could be his first NHL game in five seasons the same way he always has.

Like it's his last.

"This was my team growing up," said Smith. "This was my goal three years ago when I signed with this team. It would be an honour to play with them."

Smith, 28, earned a contract, a two-way deal, and an invitation to camp with the leadership he showed as captain of the Oilers' top farm team, the Road Runners of the AHL, last season.

ANOTHER STEP

"It's a big thrill, but it's just another step," Smith said.

"I know I have to get a lot better if I want to make the lineup. That's my next goal."

A glance at Smith's resume -- no points in 15 NHL games with Colorado to go with his 95 points in 426 games with Hershey, Springfield, Toronto and Edmonton -- tells you he's a journeyman, a ham-and-egger.

That's not a knock, just a fact. He's cut from the same cloth as Jason Smith, but without the pedigree, the C on his jersey or the extra zeroes on his paycheque.

He's one of the toughest men you'll ever meet. Not gloves-off tough, but the kind of guy who plays through injuries just to stay in the lineup, to earn his paycheque -- they aren't that big in the AHL.

Hobbled by injuries and packing more ice than a beer truck between games with the Road Runners, Smith never complained and never quit -- there was plenty to moan about with the punishing travel and the March tailspin the team endured -- in his ninth year as a pro.

IN PERSPECTIVE

"I think you have to put things in perspective," Smith said. "Playing in the minors is tough, but I probably have 30 friends who would've given anything to be in my shoes last season.

"When you're in the NHL, you don't want to go to the minors, but when you're in the minors, it's the second best league in the world and you're getting paid to play hockey."

When the Oilers announced they'd hold a rookie camp for prospects and wannabes, Smith, his invitation to main camp in hand, asked if he could attend.

"I had a taste of the NHL early and it was a lot of fun," said Smith, who was drafted 181st overall by the Avs in 1995. "I got enough of a taste to want to get back."

Married July 9, Smith understands there's every chance he'll be back in the minors -- earning $75,000 instead of $450,000 -- by the time he celebrates his 29th birthday Oct. 19.

"It's a struggle and it's a haul being in the minors, but it's a lot of fun," he said.

"I think that I'm a better player now than I was four or five years ago. If you get passed over, that's part of the game. If you get a shot, that's all you can ask.

"You can't control who they're going to call up ... All you control is how you play. If you worry about the other stuff, you have a lot of sleepless nights."


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