Being fully immersed in coaching young hockey players is providing T.J. Smith with an opportunity to give back to a game that’s been good to him all his life.
The 28-year-old St. Anthony native just wrapped up his first season as an assistant coach with the Valley Wildcats of the Maritime Junior A Hockey League.
The Wildcats, now based out of Kentville after the franchise was moved from Halifax at the start of the season, bowed out to the Truro Bearcats in four straight games in the first round of the playoffs.
“It didn’t go our way, but we had a really young team and we saw a lot of improvements and we progressed pretty good for a first-year team actually,” Smith said of the Wildcats since the move from Halifax a year ago where the team could only muster four wins all year.
“They ended up winning the league, so you don’t feel so bad I guess,” he said with a light chuckle.
The Wildcats had 19 wins in its new home in Kentville and made some noise in the early going when Smith’s charges defeated the Yarmouth Mariners in two-straight games — the final game a 3-2 double overtime win — in a best-of-three mini-series to earn a date with the Bearcats, a team Smith played for during his junior hockey career.
Smith is a former Western Kings star who also returned home from the mainland to play two years of senior hockey, suiting up with the Corner Brook Royals for a season before joining the rival Red Wings the next season. He opted to stay away from the senior ranks after his stint in Deer Lake, choosing to spend the next two years padding his coaching resume with a two-year tenure as coach of the Eastern Shore Mariners of the Nova Scotia junior B hockey league.
Making the transition from playing the game at an elite level, to being responsible for a group of young men in a coaching capacity, has been a challenging ride for Smith. He believes it is a much tougher task to coach a group of players where you are responsible for their development and preparation versus being a player who only has to worry about getting himself ready to play.
“I got more grey hair since I’ve been coaching,” he said. “A little more stressful, but that’s part of it right? As stressful as it is, when you win it feels pretty good too.”
Earning a paycheque from a coaching gig is something he relishes as he enjoys life with his girlfriend Courtney Schriver and their son Nash who turned two years old Tuesday. It has been hectic, but it’s something he wouldn’t want to change at this point in his life.
Actually, his hectic schedule will be even more challenging when next winter rolls around. He is going to take over the head coaching duties of the Valley Wildcats major midget hockey franchise when the 2014-15 season kicks off in August, while still working as an assistant coach with the Junior A Wildcats.
This is a role he’s eager to embrace because he’s a graduate of the program and feels it’s the best route to follow for a skilled hockey player looking to find his niche in a professional or college hockey setting at some point. He said major midget hockey is put on a high pedestal in Nova Scotia and players take the game pretty serious, so it’s an environment he wants to experience.
“They are very committed to their hockey and what they’re doing on and off the ice, so it’s nice to coach those kids who are serious,” he said. “I’m a big believer in major midget hockey.”
Smith hits the ice for a game of recreational hockey from time to time, but competitive hockey is something he may never pursue even though it’s still something that comes across his mind from time to time.
“I’m still young enough I could probably play if I wanted to, but with the coaching opportunity I have right now the time commitment to it is crazy,” he said.
“It’s in the back of my mind. Will I ever play again? I don’t know."