SUN Hockey Pool

Leading by example

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:03 AM ET

ST. LOUIS -- There are some environments where a young player can't help but learn how to be a winner.

Like those Edmonton Oilers dynasty teams in the '80s.

And there are some environments, like this year's edition of the Copper and Blew, that can, if you let them, deteriorate into month-long clinics on how to be a loser.

Teams as beaten up, beaten down, and as hopelessly out of playoff contention as the Oilers are can become a breeding ground for bad habits, poor attitudes, laziness and a willingness to accept defeat - traits that can infect and poison a young dressing room.

That's why, with so many of Edmonton's prospects getting their first wide-eyed look at life in the NHL this season, it was so important that they saw what Jason Smith brought to the table Tuesday night in Nashville.

The 33-year-old captain led the team in hits, got in a pair of fights, blocked shots, played tough and basically made it known from the drop of the puck that there will be no coasting to the April 7 finish line. Not from him, not from anyone.

"It's really important for us to have that level of commitment from our most experienced guy," said head coach Craig MacTavish. "He's a good role model for a lot of the younger guys for how hard you have to work and how committed you have to be to have success."

With Tom Gilbert, Bryan Young, Mathieu Roy, Matt Greene and all the other kids who might one day be leading this team themselves watching closely, Smith's lessons could pay enormous dividends for Edmonton in the future. They haven't learned how to win yet, but they're not studying how to be losers, either.

"It's pretty impressive the way he's playing right now," said MacTavish. "It doesn't go unnoticed by the organization - a guy who's going to compete that hard at a time when it's difficult mentally. It's a burden mentally to come to the rink every day but his attitude hasn't changed."

Smith's character and leadership have been tested all year. Forced to swallow up minutes on a blueline gutted in the summer, and further gutted by injuries in the winter, he's been overworked and miscast on many nights. That's not easy on a good team, let alone the dog's breakfast the Oilers have become.

And while he's been beaten wide more times that Chris Pronger ever was, and forced by new rules and a paper-thin depth chart to holster his mean streak, his competitive edge hasn't been dulled.

"I'm trying to refine my game and be as good a player as I can be on a regular basis," he said. "That's what you have to do to have team success. It's not the best situation right now but it's something we all have to deal with."

With Steve Staios, Ethan Moreau and Jarret Stoll injured, and Ryan Smyth gone, Smith is a bit of a lone wolf in the leadership department; he knows a lot of uncertain eyes in that room are looking to him. "The young guys have stepped in and are willing to learn and work hard. That's all you can ask."

If they're smart, they're soaking it up like sponges, just like he did when he was the nervous awkward rookie in New Jersey, and veterans like Bruce Driver, Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens pointed him in the right direction.

"It's been exciting," he said of the mentorship program.

"I have to be a good leader in the dressing room. Going through the ups and downs and low times we've had this year, it's been difficult. But it's a time for everybody to renew themselves and persevere. Go out and work hard and build for the future."


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